Bad signs on immigration

Even as the Senate takes up the issue of immigration reform this week, Republicans are increasingly giving indications that the effort isn't likely to go very far. First, it was Sen. Marco Rubio's dance around the issue — repeatedly speaking out against the very bill he helped craft — and then it was the defection of another key Latino GOP member, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, who removed himself from the bipartisan group that was writing the House's version of the bill.

And if post-election Republicans were determined to improve their standing with Latinos, they didn't help their cause when the House approved on Thursday a homeland security bill that cut funding for an Obama Administration program that allows young, undocumented immigrants to live and work in the United States.

The largely partisan vote was a reaction to President Barack Obama's executive orders that directed the Department of Homeland Security not to deport youngsters who were brought to this country at a young age and instead focus on criminal offenders. House Republicans made a lot of noise about how Mr. Obama shouldn't be setting immigration policy on his own.

Of course, the irony of this is rich. For years, Congress has been incapable of crafting rational immigration policy because Republicans are at best split, and at worst dominated by anti-immigrant, tea party-leaning sentiments. The president's choice to spare youngsters — many of whom attend school, hold jobs or are otherwise productive members of society — from deportation was a practical, stopgap policy choice. It dovetailed nicely with immigration reform, too.

Lashing out at that policy now — admittedly in a largely symbolic way, since the Senate is unlikely to go along with the House's choice — may be viewed as one of two things. First, an opportunity to attack Mr. Obama (always a popular cause for the House GOP) for overstepping his authority, but also a chance to refute the key point of immigration reform: establishing a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in this country.

If this was a choice for the latter (or for both, as Rep. Steve King has suggested), then the Senate may as well wrap up its immigration reform efforts now, because Republicans either aren't serious about moving forward or aren't capable of mustering the votes. Each day, it seems, Senator Rubio is offering a new condition for his support, and some are non-starters with Democrats.

Here's a great example: the proposal by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas that the path to citizenship will only be offered once 90 percent of illegal-border crossers are caught. Good luck calculating what Senator Cornyn calls "full situational awareness." Might Mr. Rubio actually endorse something that unworkable in his efforts to upgrade enforcement?

The Florida Republican is caught in a precarious political position, particularly given his obvious aspirations for higher office in 2016. But if the party gives in to the Cornyn wing, it will only serve to underscore its inability to reach out to Latinos (beyond talking about how Democrats support same-sex marriage).

After all, failure to achieve consensus on the contentious issue of immigration isn't the only policy choice that has antagonized Latino voters. Latinos are also big supporters of Obamacare and the efforts to provide decent, affordable health insurance to the poor and middle class. In California, for example, almost half of the 6 million uninsured who are eligible to sign up for coverage in the subsidized marketplaces are Spanish speaking.

Already, the refusal of some Republican governors to accept expanded Medicaid coverage isn't sitting well with Hispanic voters. As a recent RAND Corporation study points out, states that decline the Medicaid expansion will actually pay more and get less — an uncompensated care bill for the uninsured that exceeds state Medicaid costs. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is one of those feeling the heat for this problematic choice that could result in thousands of deaths that might have been averted with appropriate medical care.

Will this week's debate in the Senate accomplish anything? Democrats are no doubt enjoying watching the other party squirm as it tries to drag the bill further to the right under the mistaken notion that it will ever be acceptable to a sufficient number of the GOP. Immigration reform looked like a heavy lift from the outset; now it appears to have gained considerably more weight.