Remember when Republicans wanted to woo Latino voters?
It seems like an eternity ago.
Far from taking party elders’ advice last year to warm up to comprehensive immigration reform, Republican presidential hopefuls are moving in the opposite direction, already competing over who would be more aggressive at cracking down on illegal immigration.
A dramatic new ad by Rick Perry foreshadows the ugly fight ahead. It suggests that gang members and terrorists are setting up shop in the United States due to weak border enforcement. The Texas governor, widely seen as a 2016 candidate, torches President Barack Obama for ignoring his warnings about the influx of migrant children and exhibiting a “failure of leadership.”
“They either are inept or don’t care,” Perry says of the Obama administration.
It’s enough to give GOP strategists nightmares. In a so-called autopsy after their 2012 defeat, the Republican National Committee said the party “must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” There was no ambiguity in the RNC’s warning: “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.”
In 2012 the Latino vote carried Obama to victory in key battleground states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado, and the constituency is seen as increasingly important to the GOP’s ability to remain competitive on the presidential level.
And yet Perry’s ad is only the latest in a brewing competition among Republican White House hopefuls over who’s the toughest sheriff on immigration.
Last week Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is building a national network in apparent anticipation of a presidential bid, attacked Perry for signing a law that permits in-state tuition for undocumented children. Paul told the Wall Street Journal that the policy was a “beacon” that has encouraged more illegal immigration, resurrecting an attack that Mitt Romney used in 2012 to damage the Texas governor in the Republican primary.
“President Obama won’t send them home, and Gov. Perry has done the same thing by giving them in-state tuition. That’s a beacon without any kind of border security,” Paul told the Journal.
Paul faces competition from within the Senate, too.
Two weeks ago Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, another potential candidate for the White House, persuaded House conservatives to scuttle a Republican bill because it wasn’t tough enough on undocumented immigrants. The resulting legislation, which firebrand Reps. Steve King (R-IA) and Michele Bachmann (R-MN) raved about, would end existing deportation relief for young people and take away the president’s authority to grant it to anyone else. Nearly all Republicans voted for it, and it passed the House. Now Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is demanding a vote in the upper chamber.
“The evidence shows that the amnesty President Obama announced in 2012 is driving record numbers of immigrants to enter our nation illegally,” Cruz said at the time. “The only way to stop the border crisis is to stop Obama’s amnesty.”
All of this comes after the Republican-led House killed a comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Democratic-led Senate and championed by Obama. Modest overtures toward reform by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and ousted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) have been rebuffed by the tea party base, which fiercely opposes any kind of leniency for people in the U.S. illegally. Instead the only immigration bills that have been allowed to a full House vote would require the deportation of so-called Dreamers.
The RNC declined to comment on the intra-GOP jousting. A spokeswoman downplayed the committee’s call for immigration reform in its March 2013 report and said bad legislation would be worse than no legislation.
“First of all, the RNC doesn’t weigh in on issues between potential presidential candidates, that is their business,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski told TPM in an email. “What was said [in the report] was that we believed that action on comprehensive immigration reform would be helpful but we didn’t prescribe what that looked like – that is up to the policy folks to iron out. Bad immigration reform is no more helpful than status quo.”