There are three good reasons immigration reform should pass, even for conservatives, but one important reason why it won’t.
The first reason immigration reform should pass is democratic in nature. As the House of Representatives takes on immigration reform, it is important for the Republican Party to address the existential crisis it faces because of the demographic shifts in the population.
About 5 million fewer whites voted in 2012 compared to 2008, while almost 2 million more Latinos voted in that same time period. With the median age of Latinos at 28 years old, and the median age for whites at 42, the ethnic divide facing the GOP is also starkly generational.
None of these facts bode well for a party in which over 90% of its primary voters in 2012 were white, and the problem won’t get any better, as minorities made up a majority of the births last year. The American people are diversifying, so should the GOP.
The second is economic. Economists agree that an immigration system that is responsive to market forces is a net positive for the country. However, arbitrary visa limits, ineffectual and costly border walls, and ornery regulatory impositions on businesses do more damage to the economy than good.
No matter how long and wide you build the border wall, an unauthorized migrant need only succeed in crossing the wall once to get here. Illegal immigration is a symptom of the disconnect between government policies and economic reality, and until those two come closer together, border walls will continue to be ineffective.
The third is cultural. Social scientists have explored historical immigrant patterns and have shown similar patterns of assimilation among Latinos today as former migrant flows into the country. And although Latinos have some unique characteristics because of their proximity to their home country, perhaps the greatest force in assimilation is political integration. In fact, maintaining the illegal status of the undocumented just slows down the assimilation process.
Conservatives should be receptive to the arguments above, and the initial reaction to Mitt Romney’s loss by many conservatives was that the GOP had to do something to win over Latino voters.
But a familiar wind has caught the Republican imagination: that the GOP doesn’t need Latino voters to win elections, after all, and could be victorious if they doubled down on white voters instead.
This temptation is familiar to conservative whites in California and is the main reason why immigration reform faces a tough battle ahead. Conservative whites in California have had their political power neutered after two decades of the same rationale. But it may not be so familiar to whites that are just waking up to the shifting demographic reality in their own states.
The same cognitive dissonance that catapulted statistician Dean Chambers to popularity by convincing Republicans that, quite literally, all the polls which showed Obama defeating Romney were biased, is now convincing many that the future of the GOP rests on further antagonizing Latinos.
It’s easy to get lulled by this argument because the GOP in the House faces a classic collective action problem; a situation where the group would benefit from a certain outcome, but its individual members have little incentive to contribute to that goal.
With the Tea Party mobilizing behind this issue and pressuring the GOP not to cooperate, gerrymandered Republican districts designed to insulate the GOP within safe white districts are now political echo chambers that threaten wavering Republicans with a challenge in the primary for the next election.
The national party is facing the same death spiral that the GOP faced in California, and it’s up to the leadership to break the cycle for its reluctant members.
However, it’s still not clear that the GOP leadership will have any more success today than it did in 2007 in passing comprehensive immigration reform, and that’s not good for immigrants, the country, or the GOP — no matter what their consultants are telling them.
Stephen A. Nuño, Ph.D., NBC Latino contributor and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. He is currently writing a book on Republican outreach into the Latino Community.