There is a quiet battle underway within the Republican Party that may soon break out into the open - and it will heavily impact whether the GOP can continue as a national political party in the decades ahead.
The conflict is over how the Party will position itself with respect to the question of immigration reform - and just as importantly - the fastest-growing demographic group in country: Hispanic Americans.
President Obama has made it clear that he is intent on fixing the broken immigration system by passing immigration reform. He would do it with a package that combines smart and effective border enforcement with a crackdown on illegal hiring and unfair labor practices, and by modernizing the legal immigration system and requiring those who are undocumented to register with the government, pass background checks, study English, pay taxes, and get in line to work towards citizenship.
That would make sure that those who are here, are in the system legally; that all workers and employers are paying their fair share of taxes; and that those immigrants who come in the future do so legally.
But, more than with most any other issue, passing immigration reform requires bipartisan support - both as a question of legislative math and politics.
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has been deputized by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) - himself a strong advocate of reform - to be point man on this issue for the Democratic Majority. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has worked with Schumer for months to hammer out the specifics of a bi-partisan bill.
Most of the substantive issues appear to be close to resolution. The major outstanding problem is entirely political: will other Republicans be willing to join Graham and provide support for a truly bi-partisan effort?
That's where the cleavage within the GOP will become so important.
For many Latino voters, and their friends and families, immigration reform is more than a simple matter of policy. It's an issue that involves the future of their families and their communities. That is particularly the case because enforcement actions continue every day. Almost 400,000 immigrants were deported last year. Those deportations touch legal immigrant families - voters - throughout America, and they increase the pressure building within the Latino community for action.
On March 21st, a huge national march will take place on the Mall to express the frustration of the immigrant community that even as deportations continue, there has been little action on immigration reform.
Immigration reform is a politically realigning issue for Latinos the same way civil rights was for African Americans.
One segment of the Republican Party completely understands that critical political fact. They understand that to compete successfully in the future -- on a national scale - they must be able to contest for a sizeable segment of the Hispanic vote. Hispanics, after all, are by far the fastest growing demographic group in America. According to the Census Bureau, nearly one in six U.S. residents - or 46.9 million people, are Hispanic - a percentage that continues to grow.
If Republicans can't compete for Hispanic votes, they will become politically irrelevant in much of the U.S. over the next several decades. Many Republicans leaders get it.
But there is another group of Republicans who want to use immigration as wedge issue to win short-term political advantage among anxious voters who think of Latinos as threats to their culture, their tax dollars, and their jobs. As a practical matter, this group is willing to sacrifice long term political viability for short term political gain. And this second group has not been deterred by the fact that in recent elections hard core immigrant bashers have not fared well - even in the short term.
These two factions do not fall neatly along traditional "conservative" and "moderate" lines. Former President Bush - having seen firsthand the importance of the Latino vote in Texas - strongly favored immigration reform. Supporters run the gamut from conservatives like Sam Brownback (R-KS) to moderates like Dick Lugar (R-IN). On the other side are followers of former Congressman and presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, with a tradition of anti-immigrant bashing that knows no bounds.
Immigration is one of the few issues that could garner truly bipartisan support in the current Congress. The social and economic forces involved in this issue do not reflect the other battles that have defined the last year and a half of partisan combat. Business and organized labor are united in their desire to fix the broken immigration system.
The President met yesterday with a group of grassroots immigrant leaders, and reiterated that he would use all means at his disposal to move the immigration agenda this year. Later on Thursday he delivered the same message to Senators Graham and Schumer - both of whom reiterated their commitment to move a bi-partisan bill.
But Senator Graham needs to be able to count on the support of other members of the Republican caucus to make a truly bipartisan drive for passage.
The question facing Republicans in the next several weeks is simple: will the forces who favor immigration reform have the political courage to stand up for the long-term interests of their Party (and the country), or will they be cowed into silence by the immigrant bashers?
The bell on the immigration debate is about to go off. The Republican Party faces a critical, and potentially historic, decision. As a progressive Democrat, I would like nothing better than to see the Republican Party marginalized and unable to compete effectively for even one Latino vote.
But the interests of the country require that the immigrant-friendly forces in the Republican Party stand up straight and join with Democrats to address this critical American problem.