A Republican bill to increase deportations sounds like political suicide. That doesn’t mean it will be

Los Angeles workers march in favor of immigration reform last year.
Los Angeles workers march in favor of immigration reform last year.
Image: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
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When US president Barack Obama used his executive power to limit deportations of unauthorized immigrants, Republican lawmakers were livid. Now they are out to exact their revenge.

The proposal they’ve just unveiled to fund the Department of Homeland Security—the agency that executes immigration policy—aims to strip away the president’s discretion to minimize deportation of unauthorized immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years without committing a crime.

It would also end the special protections that the White House extended to immigrant children who were brought to the United States before they were 16 years old. Known as “Dreamers,” these children attracted increased attention in recent years as some were deported to their parents’ countries without knowing the local language or having families there.

Moderate House Republicans were reportedly surprised by the length the bill went to target these communities, especially coming after a bipartisan Senate vote for an immigration reform compromise that would have enacted protections for them akin to the president’s executive orders.

Given that the bill will need to attract Democratic votes in the Senate, it’s likely that some of these provisions will be left by the wayside in the final version. But Hispanic Democrats like Rep. Luis Gutierrez are already using the bill to argue that the “deport them all” wing of the Republican party has taken over the GOP. It’s a fairly transparent attempt to lay the groundwork for the 2016 elections, when Hispanic voters will be a sought-after constituency.

But how much do Hispanic voters really care about immigration policy? After the 2014 elections, Pew pollsters found that slightly more than half of Hispanic voters didn’t consider a candidate’s immigration position as a deal-breaker, and that the Democratic advantage with Hispanic voters, while still substantial, had diminished. With unauthorized immigration from Mexico slowing and many Hispanic voters focused on the same issues—notably the economy—as other Americans, Democrats can’t take for granted that Republicans’ callous attitude toward child migrants will be enough to secure an electoral advantage.

Indeed, predictions that expected demographic changes would force Republicans to unite behind an immigration compromise proved incorrect. So far, the party hasn’t suffered a backlash despite an electorate where seven in 10 voters supports a legislated path to citizenship, and where even the business lobbies pay lip service to immigration reform.

That may change in 2016, a presidential election year, when turnout will be larger and national issues more important. But thus far, Republicans have been able to play to their party’s anti-immigrant base without paying a price.