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Will GOP Let Clinton Capture Latino Vote? | Pennsylvania Avenue

Immigration reform activists march and chant following President Barack Obama's speech on his executive action on immigration policies last November. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A plan is circulating on Capitol Hill and among immigrant advocate groups to give Republicans in Congress the chance to get something constructive done this year on the fractious issue — and perhaps undercut Hillary Rodham Clinton’s shrewd (and cynical) effort to lock down the Hispanic vote in 2016.  

The plan is the work of Rick Swartz, founder of the National Immigration Forum and longstanding campaigner for left-right policy solutions on environmental, trade, tax and agricultural issues. He’s advocating — not for the first time — that Congress pass a “small bill” solving part of America’s immigration problem, recognizing that comprehensive reform has zero chance of enactment anytime soon.  

His proposal would give legal status and a path to citizenship to 1 to 1.3 million young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children (so-called DREAMers) and an equal number of agricultural workers. It would also give green cards to about 700,000 high-skilled foreign workers and foreign students getting university degrees in the U.S. and shorten the waiting time (now, often decades) for 3 million legal immigration applicants to get to the U.S.  

All the elements have been the subject of legislation in past Congresses, but have been stymied by partisan politics — Democrats’ refusal to consider anything but comprehensive reform covering most or all of the 11 million illegals in the U.S., and Republicans’ unwillingness to countenance anything that could be branded as “amnesty” by the party’s right-wing.  

Swartz’s plan, which he says has attracted interest from pro-reform Republicans and Democratic sponsors of past DREAM and AgJobs legislation, plus some pro-immigrant groups, has the virtue of having at least a chance of passing Congress.  

Comprehensive reform of the kind advocated last week by Clinton does not have much of a chance as long as Republicans dominate Congress. And she has to know it, which is why her move was cynical -- as well as politically very shrewd.  

The agenda she laid out in Nevada last week satisfies every item on the wish list of immigrant rights activists. She said immigration reform would be a top priority if she’s elected and she’d fight to pass a comprehensive bill with a path to citizenship for most undocumented residents, especially DREAMers.  

She promised she’d extend President Barack Obama’s executive orders to protect 5.6 million illegals from deportation for three years and offer them work permits. And, if Congress didn’t enact comprehensive reform, she promised to go even farther than Obama has with executive action, deferring deportation of the parents of so-called DREAMers.  

“We can’t wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship,” she said, sticking it to the GOP. “Now this is where I differ from everybody on the Republican side. Make no mistake: today not a single Republican candidate announced or potential is clearly or consistently supporting a path to citizenship – not one.”  

“When they talk about ‘legal status,’ that is code for second-class status,” she said, evidently referring to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, probably the most immigration-friendly of all the GOP candidates, who has backed off his previous advocacy of citizenship under criticism from right-wingers.  

Clinton’s move was shrewd as a play to capture support from an expected 17 million Hispanics registered to vote in 2016 , a projected 13 percent of the electorate, up from 10 percent in 2012 .  

Last month, GOP pollster Whit Ayers, who’s working for presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, said his party’s nominee needs to capture 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to win the election . In 2012, Mitt Romney got only 25 percent and in 2008, John McCain got 31 percent of Latino votes.  

Clinton’s move was cynical in promising what she must know she can’t deliver. Comprehensive reform plans have been introduced in Congress repeatedly since the last one was enacted in 1986 and they have all failed. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill in 2013, but it was blocked in the House. And as long as Republicans run Congress, broad bills will continue to be blocked.  

By holding out for comprehensive-or-nothing legislation, Democrats have successfully painted Republicans as anti-immigrant and have won favor with Hispanic voters. But they’ve accomplished nothing.  

If Congress failed to act in 2017, Clinton promised as president that she would make immigration law by executive order even more than Obama already has tried to do. That’s cynical, too. Obama’s orders have been enjoined by a federal judge in Texas and could be tied up in the courts through his presidency.  

Hers would be challenged on constitutional grounds, too, at least delaying any action on immigration.  

It’s likely that Obama, having promised Hispanics in 2008 he’d reform immigration policy, will accomplish precisely nothing in eight years. How the Supreme Court ultimately will rule on his (or Clinton’s) executive orders is anybody’s guess. If Clinton were seriously interested in making progress, she’d promise to work with Members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, to enact as much immigration reform as possible. Instead, she’s playing politics, hoping to win massive Latino support and make Republicans look bad.  

And Republicans do look bad. Party leaders promise incremental reform, but they persistently allow anti-reform conservatives block any action.  

As a matter of institutional pride and responsibility, Congress shouldn’t be allowing the Executive Branch and the courts make immigration law. Everyone says the immigration system is “broken.” It’s Congress’s job to fix it. Moreover, as a matter of political survival, Republicans should stop alienating the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group.  

Swartz’s plan offers a roadmap out of this mire—a chance for Congress to at least partially solve the immigration mess. Republicans could say they’ve accomplished more than Obama ever has. Democrats would be put on the spot: would they oppose some progress on immigration because it doesn’t accomplish everything they want?  

If an incremental bill actually passed Congress, pro-reform Republicans would have triumphed over right-wing nativists in their party. That would demonstrate that the GOP is not anti-Hispanic. It would help DREAMERs, agricultural workers and high-tech industries. The US would stop educating foreign students, then forcing them to leave once they graduate. The families of those waiting in legal immigration lines would be re-united.  

And partial solutions this year might lead to more comprehensive ones later.