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House Republicans Have Nothing to Fear from Supporting Immigration Reform

House Republicans Have Nothing to Fear from Supporting Immigration Reform

The May 6th primary election in North Carolina illustrates that House Republicans have little to fear from passing immigration reform, while voters across the country are calling for candidates with pro-immigration reform policies.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, joined by Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), talks to reporters following a Republican strategy meeting on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo)
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, joined by Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), talks to reporters following a Republican strategy meeting on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo)

After last June’s passage of a strong and bipartisan immigration reform bill in the Senate, immigration reform has stalled in the House of Representatives. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) floated a series of “principles” on immigration reform as a road map for potential legislation in January. But the pushback from anti-reform hardliners within his own caucus was so great, Boehner walked the principles back one week later, saying that he could not move forward on reform because he could not trust President Barack Obama to enforce what they pass.

Even so, the buzz in Washington is that House leaders still have a small window to pass reform this summer. The theory—as described by Tamar Jacoby of the conservative-leaning Immigration Works USA—is that the GOP could take up immigration reform once the threat of primary challenges facing pro-immigration reform Republican representatives in the midterm elections has passed. Jacoby argues this would make Republican House members “feel freer to vote” for reform, based on the assumption that supporting immigration reform hurts candidates in Republican primaries.

Five months into 2014, as most candidate filing deadlines and even some primaries have passed, it is clear that being pro-immigration reform is not a risky endeavor for Republicans. In fact, supporting immigration reform is proving to be essential for Republican candidates to attract voters in several key states.

Pro-immigration reform Republican wins primary in North Carolina’s 2nd District

The primary election in North Carolina on May 6th demonstrates that candidates can take a pro-immigration reform stance and win. The 2nd Congressional District’s Republican incumbent Rep. Renee Ellmers came out in favor of legalization for undocumented immigrants in January. Challenging her position on immigration became a central strategy for her primary opponent, Frank Roche, who argued that he would “work to stop amnesty” if elected. With so few opponents challenging incumbents based on their views on immigration, Politico dubbed the primary “The [one] House race where immigration matters.”

North Carolina’s 2nd District is a place where one can really test the conventional political wisdom that anti-immigrant rhetoric helps Republicans win elections. The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index rated the district as an R+10, meaning it votes 10 points more Republican than the rest of the country. The voters of the same district gave Mitt Romney a 17-point win over President Obama in 2012.

Yet the incumbent Rep. Ellmers did not shy away from her support of immigration reform during her primary campaign. Just two months before primary day, Ellmers told business and community leaders in her district:

It is not practical, it is not common sense, to assume that 11 or 12 … million people are simply going to pick up and leave our country. It is not possible because they have built their lives here, they have built their families here.

In response, the usual pro-Republican, anti-immigrant voices whipped themselves into a frenzy. NumbersUSA reminded its 727,000 Facebook followers that Ellmers’ primary was May 6, and their unflattering anti-Ellmers infographic was shared more than 3,000 times. The anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform’s local affiliate NC Listen held a meeting with Ellmers, which deteriorated into a shouting match. Hyper-conservative radio host Laura Ingraham had Ellmers on her show and told the Representative: “The American people are not with you. [The National Council of] La Raza and [Democratic New York Senator] Chuck Schumer are with you.”

But on May 6th, Ellmers easily beat her opponent, winning the primary by 18 points over Roche. A post-election Partnership for a New American Economy poll of Republican voters in the district examined how important immigration was in the election: The poll found that only 6 percent viewed immigration as their most important reason for voting. Even more notably, more than two-thirds of respondents stated that they would vote for a candidate who supports comprehensive immigration reform over one who solely wants to increase border security and enforcement.

Pro-immigrant Republicans are winning primaries across the country

For Rep. Ellmers, the debate over immigration reform was decided in a primary challenge. Other Republican champions of reform who did face challengers won their primaries easily. Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX), for example, held off a primary challenger in a district that Romney won by 30 points.

But in many counties across the country, opposition to pro-immigration reform Republicans has failed to materialize at all. According to a Center for American Progress analysis of Ballotpedia data, of the 30 House Republicans who have come out in favor of a pathway to citizenship, 14 do not have Republican primary challengers, while three are not seeking re-election. No matter the makeup of the congressional district, Republican supporters of immigration reform have fared well. Reform supporters in some solid red districts—such as Rep. John Carter (R-TX), who is from a district that Romney won by 22 points, and Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), whose district Romney won by 12 pointsdid not face Republican primary challengers.

Additionally, in a handful of purple districts—which Republicans need to win in order to hold onto their House majority—Republicans must be pro-immigration reform to stand a chance of winning. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) and Rep. David Valadao (R-CA) were two of only three Republican co-sponsors of H.R. 15, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act—the House version of the bipartisan bill—passed in the Senate. Both are running in districts that President Obama won in 2012, and both face California’s new primary system where the top two candidates regardless of party face off in the general election.

Since all voters can participate, this form of primary functions much more like a general election, where the electorate is larger and much more moderate than in a pure Republican primary. This, combined with the racial and ethnic diversity of their districts, means there is broad support among the primary electorate for immigration reform. Neither drew a primary challenge from within their own party, but both did draw two Democratic primary challengers, likely indicating the perception that there was no room for a successful conservative challenger.

Similarly two Florida Republicans, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, are long-term supporters of immigration reform. Their districts, which include large parts of Miami-Dade County, have heavy concentrations of immigrants and Latinos. A commitment to immigration reform is a must for successful candidates of both parties in this area. In 2008, the districts favored pro-reform Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) over then-Democratic candidate Obama. But Romney’s embrace of anti-immigrant rhetoric in 2012 flipped both of these districts in President Obama’s favor. Even with their support for immigration reform, neither Rep. Ros-Lehtinen nor Rep. Diaz-Balart drew a primary challenge from within their own party.

House Republicans face a choice: Immigration reform or perilous inaction

With changing demographics and changing public opinion, Rep. Ellmers’ victory is only the latest in a slew of lost elections by anti-immigrant candidates. And as House primary deadlines pass without serious opposition from anti-immigrant candidates, the threat of Republican challenges from the right on immigration has become an old dog that just won’t hunt.

House leadership now has no excuse to delay bringing up immigration legislation. But time is running out: There are only five legislative weeks left until the July 4th recess, a deadline set by grassroots activists as well as legislative champions such as Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). If Congress does not act by then, these activists and legislators will advocate for the president to use his executive authority to stop deportations and reform immigration enforcement unilaterally.

Rep. Diaz-Balart says his party now has a choice. As he told The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent:

I’m convinced that if we don’t get it done by the August break, the president, who is feeling a lot of pressure from having not done anything on immigration reform, will feel that he has to act through executive action. … It would give every excuse for the president to move forward on dealing with the undocumented while blaming Republicans for Congress’ inaction.

The next two months will determine whether the Republican Party will move forward on immigration reform. If it does nothing, it will continue to alienate Latinos and Asian Americans—the fastest growing voting blocs—as well as all citizens who support immigration reform.

The public will likely blame Republicans broadly for inaction—and not just those in the House. Without immigration reform, we will enter a presidential election campaign season in 2015 in which the Republican nominees have no chance of winning key swing states such as Nevada, Colorado, Florida, and New Mexico. As Rep. Ellmers’ primary win illustrates, the ultimately stronger position is to get on board with immigration reform.

But while the humanitarian and economic costs of inaction have not been enough move the House forward on immigration reform, the political risk that come with doing nothing are evident and the conventional wisdom on Republican primaries has now been proven wrong.

Henry Fernandez is a Senior Fellow, and Philip E. Wolgin is a Senior Policy Analyst for Immigration at the Center for American Progress. 

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Henry Fernandez

Senior Fellow

 (Phil Wolgin)

Philip E. Wolgin

Former Managing Director, Immigration Policy