Immigration Reform: Self-Interest or Pragmatism? [Opinion]

All I need to know about politics, I learned from a conversation I once had with an old PRI party operative in Mexico. The main variable at play in every politician's decisions, he told me, is not whether a law benefits the country, or even if it's in the interest of the politician's constituency: "The true politician only asks one question," the man told me. ''How will this affect me?' Politicians, you see, are animals built on self-interest, focused solely on survival."

This is a lesson immigration reform enthusiasts would be wise to keep in mind.

After Thursday's historic vote in the Senate, many applauded the 14 Republican senators who supported the bill. The praise was well earned. Still one has to ask: how many of those Republicans actually risked their individual political careers by supporting immigration reform?

South Carolina's Lindsey Graham sure did. He faces reelection in 2014 in a state where his outspoken support for immigration reform will not be popular. Still, Graham defended his position memorably: "I don't want to stop being a Senator to be a Senator," he said. Tennessee's Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker have both received thinly veiled Tea Party threats. And then there is Marco Rubio, he who is that most uncommon of Republicans: a conservative who just put everything on the line for a progressive cause. But Rubio's motives are exceptional: as a matter of fact, without immigration reform, he's got no path to the White House, at least not in the short term.

But perhaps it's more interesting to think of Republican senators who voted against the bill. The fact that an overwhelming majority of them didn't find a clear electoral incentive to support the legislation bodes ill for the immediate future of immigration reform. In my view, this bears at least two crucial implications.

First, a large number of Republican legislators believe immigration reform is harmful for their individual careers. And second, and perhaps more revealing: the lack of Republican support in the Senate shows just how poorly the party really understands the current and future weight of the Latino vote in America. The senators who decided to reject the "Gang of Eight" bill did so to protect themselves while downplaying the role Hispanics will have in the national stage, not only in 2016 but further down the road.

This toxic legislative dynamic will only get worse in the Republican-controlled House. Just a quick glance at the numbers makes clear how difficult the fight will be. Of the 234 Republican congressmen, 111 of them represent districts that are at least 80% white, places where the Latino vote is almost anecdotal. Even worse: 210 of those 234 Republican-held districts have less than a 25% Hispanic share of the vote. Surely, if politicians are animals bent essentially on self-preservation, those congressmen will struggle to come across individual incentives to support legislation that might endanger them against a more conservative Republican rival in the primaries. It is safe to assume that very few of them will want a "yes" vote on this particular issue on their resumé. It all might come down to political courage. In order for immigration reform to pass, a considerable number of Republicans will have to follow the road taken by Lindsey Graham and the brave few who decided to do their jobs even if it meant losing their jobs. But supporting immigration reform should be more than a moral issue. For Republicans, it should be about long-term preservation and pragmatism, a virtue seldom seen among the GOP nowadays. It's now almost a given that the Republican party will not survive – as a nationally competitive party, that is - if it keeps being perceived as the Big Saboteur of the Hispanic agenda.

Republicans might be able to keep their individual congressional seats in the coming years by rejecting immigration reform, but they'll be endangering their party's future. In the end, Republican congressmen have a decision to make: will they act merely out of self-interest or will they dare to be pragmatic and give their party a fighting chance with the powerful and growing Latino community? It might be the question that defines not only the fate of 11 million people but of the Grand Old Party itself.

Leon Krauze is the main anchor at Univision KMEX in Los Angeles.


Immigration Reform is a heated political issue that we view from all angles in the hope of getting politicians to address those impacted by the decisions they make.

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Immigration Reform

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