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The New Politics of Immigration Behind the New Prospects for Reform

by Pili Tobar on 01/31/2013 at 1:29pm

obama immigration speechWith immigration reform moving to center stage, the political implications and motivations behind the debate are also moving into the limelight.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

While some observers remain stuck in the old conventional wisdom regarding the politics of immigration, most leaders and strategists in both Parties recognize the new realities.  Democrats need to show Latino voters they can deliver.  Republicans need to show Latino voters they don’t hate them.  It is these imperatives that are driving both parties to get immigration reform done in 2013.

Below are key lessons about the new politics of immigration and what it means for the upcoming legislative debate:

The Politics of Immigration Have Changed – for Both Parties and to the Benefit of Good Policy:  E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post writes today, “Think back to the battle over health-care reform.  Can you imagine that Republicans, upon hearing that President Obama was about to offer his own proposals, would want to rush ahead of him to put their own marker down — and take positions close to his?  That’s the comparison to keep in mind to understand the extraordinary transformation of Beltway politics on immigration reform.”

As this short recap of immigration in the 2012 election makes clear, the changed nature of the politics of immigration is the largest driver behind the new legislative momentum and the major difference from the 2006 and 2007 era legislative battles.  The 2012 elections made it clear that Democrats have new leverage in the immigration debate but need to deliver in order to show Latino voters that they can lead and accomplish core priorities.  Democrats win politically across the spectrum when they lean into the immigration issue and fight for real reform.

As the New York Times reports today, “[o]fficials in the West Wing are convinced that the politics of the immigration issue have firmly shifted in their direction.”  At the same time, the Republican Party has no other choice but to change on immigration if it wants to rebuild its image with Latino voters.  Senator John McCain (R-AZ) captured the changed political dynamics when introducing the bipartisan Senate immigration principles, noting why the debate is in a different place: “Elections, elections…The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens.”

Rob Jesmer, former National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Executive Director, said this week, “I do believe that (Republicans) have a compelling message for Hispanics, so if we can get this issue behind us, then we are on much more fertile ground to try and take more of their vote share.  But as long as this issue is out there it’s going to be very problematic for us to make gains.”

Republicans & Latino Voters – Mitt Romney 2012 vs. George W. Bush 2004: Some in the media are engaged in a healthy debate about whether the Republican Party really will receive a boost from Latino voters if the GOP works to pass immigration reform – for example, National Journal’s Michael Catalini’s piece, “Why Tackling Immigration Reform Won’t Close the Rift Between the GOP and Hispanics” was followed yesterday by Jordan Fabian of ABC News/Univision’s piece, “Analysis: GOP Needs Immigration Reform to Solve ‘Hispanic Problem’.”  So which is it?

While Catalini marshals data showing that most Latinos prefer an engaged and active role for government, Fabian captures that, “Latino voters may list other issues like the economy and jobs higher in importance than immigration in public opinion polls, but it serves as the ultimate ‘gateway issue’ for earning the trust of Hispanic and Latino voters…Simply put, immigration is a very personal issue for most Latino voters and they strongly support a bill similar to what’s being discussed right now.”  As a reminder of the personal stakes of the immigration debate, Latino Decisions’ election eve pollingfound that 60% of Latino voters have a family member or friend who is undocumented.  This means that immigration reform is not just a policy issue, it’s personal, with real-life consequences.

This leaves the Republican Party with a choice.  They can choose the George W. Bush 2004 path or the Mitt Romney 2012 path.  Bush received approximately 40% of the Latino vote in 2004; Romney garnered only 23%of a much larger Latino electorate supported Romney in 2012.  In fact, if Romney had won the support of 42% of Latinos in November – approximately Bush’s ’04 share – he would have won the national popular vote, as well as the states of Florida, Colorado, and New Mexico.

The largest single reason behind the Republican nominee’s decline among Latino voters is the GOP’s embrace of a hard-line immigration stance in the intervening years.  According to election-eve polling by Latino Decisions and ImpreMedia, when asked “If the Republican Party took a lead role in passing comprehensive reform with a path to citizenship, would it make you more likely to vote Republican?,” 31% of Latino voters said they’d be “more likely” to vote Republican, 11% said “less likely” and 41% said it had “no effect.”  A pro-immigration reform Republican Party could win enough Latino support to remain a viable national party, while continuing to follow the Romney model on immigration will continue to lose them elections.  Embracing immigration reform won’t likely win the next Republican nominee the majority of Latino voters, but it will likely ensure that the GOP is competitive enough among Latino voters to give the Party’s White House chances a significant boost, while benefiting Republican statewide candidates in an increasing number of locations.

Next Week’s House Hearing on Immigration a Test Case if GOP Has Learned its Immigration Lessons: Next Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee will hold an immigration hearing that will double as an opportunity for the Republican Party to demonstrate whether or not it has learned its lessons regarding the new politics of immigration.  National Spanish language media will be covering the hearings closely.  With some already speculating whether immigration legislation can pass through the shoals of the Republican-controlled House, the accompanying question remains just as relevant: will the House GOP really work to scuttle its own Party’s best political interests?

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