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On Immigration, Democrats Lean In – While Republicans Step Back

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A Sign of How Much the Politics of Immigration Have Changed

Democrats in the House of Representatives are demanding action on immigration reform and using a variety of procedural tactics, such as today’s “previous question” on the national parks bill and the filing of a “discharge petition,” to try to force a debate.

This overwhelming Democratic support for an immigration vote – and the recognition that leaning into immigration reform during an election year makes political sense – is the latest sign of how the politics of immigration have changed in just the last few years.  The lesson seems to have eluded Republicans, who seem to want to ignore the issue and repeat the mistakes of the past.

In 2007, then Democratic congressman Rahm Emanuel said that immigration was the “third rail of American politics” and that, “And anyone who doesn’t realize that isn’t with the American people.”  His message to Democrats (and later to President Obama during his days as White House Chief of Staff): touch immigration reform and Democrats lose.  Emanuel was reflecting the conventional political wisdom of many Democrats at the time.  Earlier in 2007, 15 Democrats in the Senate voted against moving immigration reform forward; in 2008, the last instance of an immigration-related discharge petition was an attempt to force a vote on Democrat Heath Shuler’s (D-NC) enforcement-only E-Verify legislation; and in 2009 and 2010, the Democratic congressional majority did not move any immigration reform legislation forward, in part due to a feared electoral backlash (they eventually advanced the DREAM Act during the 2010 lame duck session, where it passed the House and fell five votes short of overcoming a Republican filibuster in the Senate).

Yet actual elections started to impart a different political lesson – namely, that Democrats should embrace and lean into immigration reform.  In 2008, in 20 of 22 races tracked, the pro-immigration reform candidate defeated the anti-immigrant candidate.  In 2010, the victories of pro-immigrant candidates like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) in races against hardline anti-immigrant opponents, helped stop that year’s “Republican wave” at the Rockies and keep the U.S. Senate in Democratic hands, thanks in large part to a mobilized Latino electorate.

The 2012 elections provided another test of the politics of immigration.  Specifically, the White House was concerned before its June 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) announcement that the political backlash to the news could be severe.  Yet the DACA announcement was a major turning point that helped President Obama win Latino voters’ support over Mitt Romney by a whopping 75%-23% margin nationwide.  Meanwhile, swing voters strongly favored DACA and Romney and Republicans were divided and thrown on the defensive about how to respond.  Up and down the ballot in 2012, the political lesson was clear: Democrats should lean in and deliver on immigration and Republicans should sue for peace on immigration and share credit in reform’s passage if they were to compete for the growing portions of the American electorate.

Congressional Democrats are acting on these lessons these days, with the House Democrats united behind this week’s #DemandAVote push (involving the previous question vote and the discharge petition activity in the House) and the Senate Democratic caucus voting unanimously for immigration reform last June.  But after initial consensus that the GOP needed to embrace and pass immigration reform, Republicans are in fact, moving in the wrong direction.  While simultaneously blocking immigration reform from receiving a vote, House Republicans have passed anti-immigrant ringleader Rep. Steve King’s amendment to defund the DACA program and subject DREAMers to deportation and supported two recent bills designed to strip President Obama’s executive authority to protect DREAMers and military families from deportation.

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

One party has learned the lessons of recent elections well.  Democrats are leaning in to demand a vote and action on immigration reform and will up their pressure on President Obama to take action should the House GOP continue to block reform.  Meanwhile, Republicans seem incapable of recognizing the political damage caused by their willful ignorance of recent history.

If the House GOP continues to block reform and prevent a vote, they will leave President Obama little choice but to step in to take bold executive action, with predictable and lasting electoral consequences for the Republican Party’s ability to compete for Latino, Asian-American, and young voters.