Immigration Reform and the Hispanic Vote

Senate Republicans need to think carefully about what they say next week, and how they vote.

As the Senate takes up immigration reform next week, Republicans must consider the impressions they will create by what they say, the changes they propose and their votes on the final product.

There is growing public support for providing a pathway to citizenship for those now in the country illegally. A February CBS/New York Times poll found 56% supported a pathway to citizenship for illegals, up from 38% in December 2007. Just 20% now say they should leave the country. An April Associated Press poll found 63% support a pathway, up from 50% in August 2010.

Support for a pathway has grown most among Republicans. A January AP-GfK poll found 53% of Republicans now support it—up from 31% in 2010. (A Quinnipiac poll last week found support among Republicans at 39%.)

Leading Senate Republicans (including Jeff Flake, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio) support a pathway to citizenship, but only if the border is first secured. Even Republican senators publicly arguing against a pathway recognize it is in their interest to play down that issue and focus instead on possible weaknesses in the bill's border-security provisions or adverse economic impact.

Since immigration reform was last considered in 2007, Americans have become more insistent on securing the border while also becoming more supportive of a path to citizenship and more immigration of high-skilled workers.

Border security is likely to dominate next week's Senate debate. Republicans don't trust the administration to impartially determine if the border has been secured. This is important because the bill's path to citizenship doesn't open until the border has been secured.

One proposal would have Congress vote each year on whether the border is secure, but that is not workable. It could result in subjective, politically driven decisions by Congress. Who doesn't think if Democrats controlled Congress as they did in 2009 and 2010 that the border would be deemed secure, even if it wasn't?

Better to have clear, verifiable metrics such as Mr. Rubio's proposal for 90% of all incoming illegals to be apprehended. A set of standards won't be easy to arrive at, but it is something Republicans should champion.

It is also important that Republicans avoid calling a pathway to citizenship "amnesty." Amnesty is the forgiveness of wrongdoing without penalty, something President Ronald Reagan advocated and signed into law with the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. The law essentially told those here illegally that if they had arrived in the U.S. prior to 1982 and wanted to become citizens, simply raise your right hand.

The current Senate bill has plenty of penalties and hurdles for those here illegally who seek citizenship. They must, for example, establish that they have been here since Dec. 31, 2011, and, in a provision likely to be toughened, prove their good moral character (e.g. no more than three misdemeanors and no felonies). They must pay $2,000 in fines: $500 when they surface, $500 if they want to remain in America after six years, and $1,000 when finally eligible to apply for a green card, as well as other processing charges to be determined. They must pay taxes and—unlike the 2.7 million illegals granted amnesty after the 1986 reforms—are barred from receiving any federal benefits, including welfare and ObamaCare.

To renew their temporary status after six years, those still waiting to become citizens must prove they've been steadily employed, paid all taxes, and aren't on welfare. Before they get a green card, they must pass a test demonstrating their knowledge of English. And they must stand at the back of the line behind everyone who's already waiting patiently and legally to immigrate here.

During last year's election, Hispanics considered jobs, the economy and health care as more important than immigration reform. Not now: The March 5, 2013, Latino Decisions Poll found that 58% of Hispanics believe immigration reform is one of the most important issues the president and Congress should address, followed by create more jobs/fix the economy at 38%, education reform/schools at 19%, and health care at 15%.

A January Latino Decisions survey suggested that 42% of Hispanics would vote Republican or be more likely to if the GOP "took a lead role" in passing comprehensive reform with a path to citizenship. American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks pointed out on these pages that over half of unregistered Hispanics are self-identified conservatives, much higher than those already registered to vote.

Immigration reform is now a gateway issue: Many Hispanics won't be open to Republicans until it is resolved, which could take the rest of the year. But there is little doubt next week's Senate deliberations will shape for some time to come the Hispanic community's perceptions of the GOP.

A version of this article appeared June 6, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Immigration Reform and the Hispanic Vote and online at WSJ.com.