Now that comprehensive immigration reform has been put on the congressional legislative agenda, it will present a stern test for moderate Republicans who wish to remake the GOP into a more appealing national political party. The challenge they face is daunting because the central point of immigration reform – a path to citizenship for undocumented workers (i.e. “amnesty”) – is an anathema to right-wing conservatives. How effectively GOP moderates are able to craft a bill that both satisfies this need, and assuages the more extreme elements in their party, will set a defining precedent for the future of the Republican Party.
Unlike the fiscal cliff debate, or even the upcoming budget negotiations surrounding the debt ceiling and sequester spending cuts, GOP moderates may not have their best ally in their corner. Powerful business interests, exemplified by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, generally support the idea of comprehensive immigration reform; but they are opposed to any measure that would restrict access to cheap labor. Allowing undocumented workers to become citizens would bring them out of the shadows and into the protective domain of minimum wage, labor laws, and collective bargaining. Resolving this problem to everyone’s satisfaction will not be easy. Progressive Democrats will not accept reform “in name only” that just preserves the status quo.
Another aspect of citizenship that is likely to be divisive for the GOP is voting. Moderate Republicans understand they must appeal to Hispanic voters. Right-wing conservatives are opposed because they believe more Hispanic votes will benefit the Democratic Party. The position which proves to be correct ultimately depends upon how comfortable Hispanics feel about voting for Republican candidates. And as long as the GOP remains divided on this and other related issues, Hispanics probably won’t feel comfortable enough to vote for them.
In the coming weeks, the nation will see first-hand how well moderate Republicans perform on this test to remake the GOP.