WASHINGTON— The fate of U.S. immigration reform could hinge on whether the Republican-controlled House of Representatives embraces a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. Opposition to a comprehensive bill persists, and there could be political fallout if the reform effort fails.
Backers of immigration reform have held large-scale rallies to pressure lawmakers. Opponents have held fewer and smaller events like this one in Richmond, Virginia, attended by an arch-foe of a path to citizenship for the undocumented.
“If we reward people for breaking the law, we get more law-breakers. They got here on their own, and if the opportunities are not here - if we shut down the jobs magnet, if we secure the border - then a lot of people will find a way back to their home country,” said Republican Congressman Steve King.
The event was held near the district of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. He and Speaker John Boehner will decide if the chamber ultimately votes on a reform package.
“If immigration reform fails to pass, Republicans will get the blame," said Republican strategist John Feehery. He said his party risks the wrath of America’s fastest-growing segment: Hispanics.
“If they alienate this voting bloc, they are going to have a coalition that will continually vote against them, and they will be in big trouble,” he said.
In 2012, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney got less than 30 percent of the Hispanic vote.
The party's stance on immigration reform is a big reason why, according to activist Angelica Salas. “They [Republicans] keep reminding us of why we should not vote for them or stand with them.”
The voting trend is confirmed by Hispanic researcher Mark Lopez at the Pew Research Center. “We have seen a surge in the number of Hispanics who identify with or lean towards the Democratic Party in recent years.”
Lopez adds that immigration reform, however, is only one issue Hispanics care deeply about. Others include economic opportunity and education. Lopez said the Hispanic electorate stands at 23 million today, and could reach 40 million by 2030.
“In the last decade, Hispanics alone accounted for more than half of U.S. population growth. Moving forward, they will continue to account for a significant share, perhaps even a majority of U.S. population growth,” he said.
Republican Strategist Feehery sees little chance of passing immigration reform this year, but hopes his party eventually will embrace a path to citizenship for the undocumented.
“What people vote for, ultimately, is their pocketbooks. And I think that as Hispanic voters become more prosperous and are introduced more to the mainstream of American society, they will start voting their pocketbooks [in their economic interests] and they will look at Republicans. The reason I think we should pass comprehensive immigration reform is to speed that process along,” he said.
House Speaker John Boehner said he knows immigration reform is needed. “The current system is broken. It needs to be fixed.”
Boehner has ruled out, though, a vote on a bill not backed by a majority of his caucus. That would appear to rule out a path to citizenship, for now.