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Immigration at the Democratic National Convention

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Last week, Republicans met in Tampa to nominate Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate.  For the RNC, we put together a guide of what to expect from the convention, its nominee, and its delegates on immigration. Turns out, not so much. When it came to immigration, as Univision’s Jordan Fabian reported:

no speaker took the opportunity to address the topic, and that gaping absence stood out like a sore thumb. (emphasis in original)

This week, the Democrats will convene in Charlotte to nominate Barack Obama, and we’re expecting a much more public discussion about immigration.

Just five years ago, then-Congressman Rahm Emanuel made this infamous declaration,

“For the American people, and therefore all of us, [immigration has] emerged as the third rail of American politics,” Emanuel said. “And anyone who doesn’t realize that isn’t with the American people.”

Fortunately, a lot has changed in the last five years, and some in the Democratic Party (including Emanuel) are starting to realize it.  In 2010, the victory of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) provided a template for the new paradigm of immigration politics.  During the summer of 2010, Reid made a commitment to bring the DREAM Act to a vote in the U.S. Senate, which he did in September (when Republicans blocked it), and again in December (after he had been re-elected, proving that he would keep his promise).  Reid’s promise and follow-through had an almost immediate positive electoral impact, as documented in polling from Latino Decisions in September of 2010 and the eventual election results.  The contrast between Reid and his challenger Sharron Angle’s approach to immigration was a major reason that the Latino electorate grew substantially and favored Reid by the whopping margin 90-8%.  In fact, Reid attributed his victory to Latino voter support.  His win, along with that of other pro-immigrant candidates like Michael Bennet (D-CO), helped stop the “Republican wave” in 2010 at the Rockies. Despite this Latino firewall,  it was the Republicans who still didn’t realize the new paradigm on immigration. In December of 2010, GOP Senators filibustered the DREAM Act, blocking its passage.  Only three of them  (Bennett, Lugar and Murkowski) voted  to end their party’s filibuster.

Simply put, immigration is a motivating issue for immigrants and Latinos, while swing voters are more interested in solutions than sound bites.  If Republicans are paying attention to Charlotte, they might learn a little bit about the new politics of immigration.

Although President Obama campaigned on the promise of immigration reform, there was never a serious effort to move reform legislation, and the Obama administration has deported more immigrants than any previous administration. The dynamics have changed over the past several months when the President took a lesson from Harry Reid and put bold action behind his words.  As Obama saw when he (finally) announced his new policy to stop the deportation of DREAMers, taking affirmative and bold action mobilizes Latino and other pro-immigrant voters, isolates anti-immigration restrictionists, and tells swing voters that you are willing to lead on this issue. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein noted the political impact of the new paradigm in a column on the day the new policy took effect:

Not too long ago, I sat down with a senior member of President Obama’s political team. Talk turned, as it often does, to the election, and the official said something that surprised me: If the president wins, this official thought that we would look back after the election and pinpoint the day the administration announced their new policy on deportations as the day the election was won.

Win or lose, the DREAM policy was all upside and no downside for the President and Democratic Party.  And the country, too.

At the RNC, Kris Kobach wrote the anti-immingrant provisions in the GOP platform and no one discussed the issue from the platform. We’re expecting a stark contrast in Charlotte. And, as we did with the Republican convention we’ll be monitoring the event closely to see who says what about the immigration issue.