Charlie Harper: Push for probation, not 'amnesty'

June 16, 2014 

Much of the oxygen feeding last week's political news cycle came out of Richmond, Virginia, where underfinanced Dave Brat handily defeated Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Many have sought to define the surprising loss through the prism that most suits their world view. Among the likely casualties is any hope that immigration reform will be taken up by the House any time before the November elections.

Many are pointing to the roll of the immigration debate in Cantor's primary. Cantor was for a version of The Dream Act (though he voted against the bill as presented in the House), but allowed the conversation to muddle around the word "Amnesty."

Amnesty has become the certain devolution point of any GOP debate on immigration. Any sensible reform eventually gets called "Amnesty" by those who wish to pretend that the status quo is preferable to a solution, while holding on to the belief that our country can and will figure out how to deport 11 million people. The word, once invoked, becomes toxic to rational debate.

Cantor's loss should not be looked at as the sole barometer for Republicans' willingness to engage in a meaningful debate on immigration reform. Closer to home, Lindsey Graham beat out 6 challengers to win 56% of the vote. As Molly Ball notes in The Atlantic, Graham didn't run away from immigration reform, but rather campaigned on it at every stop.

There is additional proof that Graham's approach is the safer one for Republican candidates, courtesy of a new set of numbers released last week from a consortium of ten GOP pollsters. The surveys found baseline opinions from registered voters, Hispanic voters, and Republicans in general.

Fully three-quarters of Tea Party Republicans, conservatives and white evangelicals support some kind of legalization of those here illegally, with only twenty five percent of "the base" favoring deportation. The survey found broad support for conditions such as paying a fine, back taxes, maintain a job, and learning English as conditions to stay.

These conditions would not be "amnesty." Instead, they should be likened to probation. In a legal context, amnesty is the forgiveness of a crime with no conditions offered. A probationary period is one during which additional conditions are imposed while behavior is monitored over a period of time. If we are to make progress in this debate on how to fix a serious problem, we need to quit carelessly throwing around the term "amnesty" and start looking at what are the proper conditions and benchmarks for probation.

In addition, defining what "securing the border" means would be a good start. Biometric visas are a practical if not cheap answer to much of the inflow, as estimates are that almost half of undocumented aliens originally came here legally and overstayed visas.

But before some are willing to engage in this debate, they will first have to understand why it matters. The Hispanic population is growing rapidly, and Republicans are rapidly losing their votes. George W Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote in 2004. Just two presidential elections later, Mitt Romney received only 27%.

In the Republican bastion of Gwinnett County, the Hispanic population grew 153 percent over the past decade, with the Hispanic population now fully one out of every five county residents. Couple the growth of Hispanic residents in Atlanta's suburbs with growing populations of Asian and other non-Hispanic immigrants and the picture becomes more clear. It's not difficult to figure out how "English Only" and other anti-immigrant rhetoric is poisoning the Republicans' positions with many voters today and for the foreseeable future by alienating legal immigrants.

Yet hope is not lost. The same group of pollsters believe that roughly one quarter of the Hispanic vote is up for grabs -- IF Republicans are willing to deal with issues such as immigration from a stance that is not patently offensive to Hispanics and other non-whites. Dealing with the issue directly would be a start, instead of halfheartedly speaking to the issue then allowing the 25 percent of GOP voters who don't want a solution to fill the media void.

Probation is a time-honored concept that allows those who have transgressed to return to a correct and productive path. Republicans would be wise to invest in this issue, and begin to define the terms. If they do, perhaps the growing Hispanic population will allow Republicans into a probation period of their own. One could feasibly see that at the end of this process, there would be a path for Republicans to receive votes.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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