Three Republicans signed on to the House Democrats' immigration bill in the past week, which is the best news the reform movement has had in a while. Even so, passing comprehensive reform in this Congress remains a tough slog. For one, the troubled rollout of Obamacare gives House Republicans an activity -- attacking! -- they enjoy far more than legislating. And given the political dynamics of the Republican conference, and the prickliness of the issue, immigration legislation is especially unfun.
While some contend that the advent of an election year dooms immigration reform, history suggests otherwise. Many immigration bills have passed in even years, including the comprehensive reform of 1986, which the current Senate bill (slightly modified and embraced by House Democrats) resembles in its political balance between enforcement and legalization of undocumented immigrants. Other immigration legislation passed Congress in 1996, 1990, 1980, 1976 and 1952.
Immigration laws don't invite smooth sailing. "The '86 bill was dead so many times," recalled Muzaffar Chishti, who runs the New York office of the Migration Policy Institute. "I took my vacation after it was clear Congress was not going to pass a bill." Chishti was not the only one surprised when a major overhaul passed both houses in mid-October, just weeks before the 1986 midterm election.
The 2014 election promises to be nationalized, both because national partisanship increasingly pervades districts far from Washington and because the party arguments now taking shape -- basically "they're lunatics" vs. "socialism sucks" -- are national in character. By late spring, when the Tea Party primary season has passed, Republicans may want to take another look at immigration. Then again, because it's hard, they may not. And because the 2014 race will lack the unifying force field provided by a presidential contest, when the whole party is on the ballot, they won't necessarily have to.
The main event, however, will come soon enough. Chishti said he believes "2015 is in many ways the best year" for immigration reform. "If the Hispanic vote keeps on going the way it has, that will send a message," he said. The way the Hispanic vote has been going is the same way the Asian vote has been going: up, and increasingly Democratic. In 2015, Republicans will be looking at immigration through presidential, rather than congressional, glasses. Strong Hispanic and Asian turnout in 2014 would especially encourage a new clarity of vision.
The blunt logic encouraging Republican support for immigration reform is unchanged; only the timing is in doubt. In 2014 or 2015 or 2016 Republicans will have to pass legislation. Because a party that gets 20 percent of the nonwhite vote, as the Republican presidential ticket did in 2012, is a party set to collide violently with the 21st century. And while Republican nativists appear eager to go down with the ship, others have been eyeing the approaching iceberg with more trepidation. The question is when, exactly, they will start scrambling for the lifeboats.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)