Carl Leubsdorf - Why GOP reversed course -- again -- on immigration reform

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Well, that didn't take long.

Less than a week after House Republicans sought to shed their negative image by opening the way to a compromise on immigration legislation, they reversed course, declaring there was no way any bill could pass this year.

"There's widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws," House Speaker John Boehner said. "And it's going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes."

Their decision means the GOP will have difficulty improving its negative standing with Hispanics before the 2016 election.

GOP lawmakers cited proposed border control provisions, President Barack Obama's changes with executive orders during the glitch-filled rollout of the Affordable Care Act and a variety of other measures.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who drew sharp conservative criticism for backing the bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate, said the IRS scandal, the Benghazi controversy and the health care law were "evidence the government, this administration, unilaterally decides which part of the law to enforce and not enforce."

A relative newcomer, Rubio seems not to know past presidents have done similar things. George W. Bush often issued signing statements noting which part of a law he would enforce, and others issued more executive orders than Obama. But the real reason is the continuing GOP split on the extent to which an immigration bill would provide legal status for the 11 million immigrants here illegally. Party leaders refuse to work with the Democratic minority to craft a compromise bill that could pass the House, insisting on a measure backed by "the majority of the majority."

According to several analysts, opinion in most Republican-held House districts opposes legal status for illegal immigrants, making any GOP backer vulnerable to a primary challenge. That would likely mean that the House would stay Republican but with a stronger tea party influence threatening Boehner's speakership.

Boehner talked of acting in 2015, but by then candidates in the GOP presidential race will be vying to take the strongest anti-immigrant positions. And Republicans rejected a proposal by a top Senate Democrat, Sen. Charles Schumer, for a law that would take effect after Obama leaves office.

Republicans don't want to give Obama a legislative victory. And Obama made passage of comprehensive immigration reform with some form of legal status, if not citizenship, one of his top second term goals.

The GOP stance is especially ironic, since Hispanic groups have sharply criticized the Obama administration for its zeal in deporting more than 2 million illegal immigrants.

But by refusing to consider immigration legislation, the House GOP could spur Obama to use his executive authority unilaterally to reduce deportations of illegal immigrants or expand the number who could stay permanently in the United States. That's what he did in 2012 when he gave permanent status to the so-called DREAMers, young Hispanics brought here illegally by their parents who became either military veterans, high school graduates or the equivalent.

Behind this jockeying is the realization by both parties that the nation's burgeoning Hispanic population could determine their political future. After all, the number of U.S. Hispanics will likely triple by 2040, spurring a big increase in their clout from their 10 percent of voters in 2012.

In a sense, California and Texas are the cutting edge of that change. In California, the GOP is still suffering from Gov. Pete Wilson's support for a 1994 referendum denying health and education benefits to illegal immigrants.

In Texas, Republicans risk similar damage from a voter identification law that will keep thousands of Hispanics from voting, redistricting plans that reduce Hispanic legislative clout and repeal of in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants.

So it was hardly surprising that the hint of a more positive national GOP attitude toward Hispanics was just too good to be true.

(Carl Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.)

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