Washington, DC – While the Republican Party’s 2016 contenders are enmeshed in the anti-immigrant circus swirling around Donald Trump and advancing more immigration soundbites than solutions, the Democratic presidential contenders are leaning into immigration issues and advancing real solutions. The Trump storm will pass eventually, but the Democrats’ serious immigration policy discussion will remain durable – with big implications for Democrats’ hope to maximize the Latino vote in 2016.
Case in point: Martin O’Malley.
Yesterday, he issued a detailed immigration policy white paperthat is a serious and thoughtful effort at shaping a national immigration policy that is both good for immigrants and good for America. Yesterday’s event and paper release is just the latest reminder that O’Malley is making immigration a central plank of his campaign.
O’Malley was joined this week at the annual NCLR conference by fellow candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders (none of the Republican candidates bothered to show up), and each of the candidates forcefully denounced Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant comments and the anti-immigrant lurch of the GOP and outlined a pro-immigrant vision. For example, all three have now pledged to extend executive action to cover more groups of undocumented immigrants (such as parents of DACA recipients) should Republicans again block a permanent, legislative solution.
As we’ve pointed out in the past, recent election cycles have showed the importance of Democrats embracing exactly this “lean in” approach to immigration politics (read our May 2015 report for more). There’s no question that Latino voters’ share of the electorate has been growing and Latinos have been trending Democratic in recent years. But for Democratic candidates, winning a majority of Latino voters is not enough. They have two goals – to win the largest share of Latino votes possible and toand turn out the largest number of Latino voters available. And one way they can do so is by leaning in – aggressively – on immigration reform.
So far, so good. The Democratic contenders are not only drawing a sharp contrast with the Republican presidential contenders and appealing to Latino, Asian-American and immigrant voters for whom immigration reform is a priority, they are also connecting with the broad mainstream of American public opinion on the issue. Diehard anti-immigrant voters are a loud but not large component of the general electorate, and they are often overrepresented in Republican primary audiences (a majority of GOP voters are more pragmatic and pro-reform than many believe).
It’s worth remembering that national Democrats haven’t always leaned in on immigration. In 2007, Rahm Emanuel famouslysaid that immigration is the third rail of American politics. His message to Democrats in swing states and districts: touch immigration and you lose. The “Rahm” school of thought emphasized that immigration was an issue to avoid and if you had to discuss it, Democrats should mimic the rhetoric and policy stances of Republicans. This fear was on display in the 2007 legislative debate when one-third of Senate Democrats voted against a conservative version of comprehensive immigration reform. And as recently as the 2014 election cycle, Democrats backtracked on immigration. Despite promising to take executive action on behalf of undocumented immigrants inJune 2014 Rose Garden remarks, President Obama decided to delay executive action until after the 2014 elections in hopes of protecting red state Senate incumbents. Of course, immigrants and their allies were not happy. But after the election, neither were the Democrats who bought into the “play it safe” approach. Not only did all of the red state Senate Democrats lose, but Latino voter apathy in Colorado contributed to Mark Udall’s loss to Republican Cory Gardner, and hurt Democratic candidates in a range of House and gubernatorial contests that could have been won had Latino turnout been higher.
While strong stands on immigration reform issues matter, investment in voter turnout matters, too. In order to take advantage of the favorable demographic trends moving in their favor for 2016, progressives must fund the infrastructure to register and mobilize the eligible voters who comprise the new American electorate. If the Democratic contenders continue to lean in and embrace the new politics of immigration reform, and if the Democratic Party apparatus sufficiently invests in reaching newly eligible voters, it will help mobilize the largest Latino and Asian-American electorate in history and make the Republican likelihood of retaking the White House that much more difficult – especially given the deepening damage to the GOP brand.
According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “The Trump Circus may be sucking up all the oxygen at the moment, but the story that will have lasting impact is the fact that major Democratic candidates are seizing the immigration reform issue. This ‘lean-in’ approach is quite distinct from a GOP that has lurched to the right on immigration, has been timid in the face of Trump’s racist remarks, and has been sending a message to Latino, Asian American and immigrant voters that ‘we don’t like your kind.’ Moreover, Democrats are getting that these pro-immigrant views are popular with the majority of American voters, who want a workable solution, not vacuous soundbites or ugly insults. Most in the country are ready: fix the problem by bringing 11 million people out of the shadows and under the rule of law, ask them to go through a background check, pay a fine, and study English, and get themselves on a path to become a citizen in the country they love. Democrats have moved light years from where they were in 2007, and it shows. They are leaning into immigration reform, offering thoughtful policy approaches, and are mindful of the new power of the Latino and immigrant vote. The GOP, on the other hand, cannot seem to escape the Trump Three Ring Circus. The contrast couldn’t be clearer.”