Conventional wisdom assumes that the House Republicans’ insistence on enforcement-only immigration reform will help them in November despite the long-term risks. As Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz) puts it, “There are people in the House who think this issue is our magic carpet ride.” However, it’s possible that House Republicans may be badly misreading the views of conservative voters.
One indicator is the primary challenges to GOP Rep. Chris Cannon, who represents a conservative Utah district and is one of the House’s staunchest backers of comprehensive reform. In 2004, Cannon was opposed by a restrictionist who reportedly received more than $100,000 in assistance from anti-immigration groups and Team America PAC, founded by Rep. Tancredo. Cannon won by 16 percentage points. This year, Cannon was challenged by wealthy businessman John Jacob, and again immigration dominated the race; Team America PAC ran $50,000 worth of ads attacking Cannon, according to news reports. Although Jacob made plenty of noise, Cannon won comfortably, 56-44.
Voter views on immigration are especially complex—and often just plain contradictory. What House Republicans may have overlooked is that although pretty much everyone wants tougher border security, that doesn’t mean that they’re not also open to other reforms. This July, the conservative Manhattan Institute released a poll of likely Republican voters in which 75 percent of respondents favored legislation encompassing border security, harsher employer penalties, and a temporary worker program with a path to citizenship for the undocumented. This attitude held among “very conservative Republicans (72 percent), white conservative Christians (76 percent), and those who listen to news talk radio on a daily basis (72 percent).” When given a choice between this plan and an enforcement-only bill, Republicans still preferred the comprehensive plan by 58 to 33 percent.
Even worse, those representatives who refuse to compromise on enforcement may be setting a bigger trap for themselves. Republican pollster Whit Ayres found in a June survey that conservative voters will be less likely to vote for Republicans this November if Congress can’t pass a bill. House Republicans may have turned the immigration debate into the event they most wanted to avoid—a referendum on their ability to govern.