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The 2012 Elections: A New Paradigm of Immigration Politics

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Whether President Obama Will Deliver Relief for DREAM Youth a Test Case in Old vs. New Politics of Immigration 

Old theories about the politics of immigration are giving way to new realities, as demographics and the results of recent elections make the political case for pro-immigration positions.  But too many candidates in both political parties remain beholden to the old “conventional wisdom” about the politics of immigration.  From his performance during the GOP primary, it’s clear that Mitt Romney believes in the old paradigm.  He could even lose the election because of it.  But President Obama is poised to benefit from the new politics of immigration—if he embraces the new paradigm and puts bold actions behind his words.

The old political paradigm held that immigration was among the third rails of American politics.  Supposedly, taking a pro-immigrant position would mobilize voters against a candidate.  As a result, the common advice for Democratic candidates was to avoid the issue, and stress their support for border enforcement if forced to discuss it.  That advice may have been based on listening to voter frustration at town halls, but it certainly wasn’t based on election results.  In 2006, House Republicans tried to make immigration an issue in campaigns nationwide, and Democrats still took back the House.  In the 2008 election cycle, Republicans lost 20 of 22 competitive House and Senate races where they advocated the more extreme immigration position.

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 in December of 2010 (when the DREAM Act failed to become law, despite support from 55 Senators in a floor vote).  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%, leading Reid to attribute his victory to Latino voter support.  His victory, along with that of other pro-immigrant candidates like Michael Bennet (D-CO), helped stop the “Republican wave” at the Rockies.

What accounts for the emergence of this new paradigm?  Simply put, immigration is a motivating issue for immigrants and Latinos, while swing voters are neither galvanized by it nor turned off by pragmatic approaches to solving it.

Why is immigration so important to Latinos and immigrant voters?  Simple – because it’s personal.  It’s about their families and their friends.  It’s about whether they have the freedom to walk down the street without being asked for their “papers.”  It’s about respect.  What about other voters?  The fact is, voters of all backgrounds have a much more nuanced and pragmatic view towards fixing immigration than many in the political class believe.  For example, polling of Iowa Republican caucus-goers in late 2011 found that few voters supported a hardline immigration position and few held it as a priority.  Outside of Iowa, in nearly every Republican primary this cycle, exit polling documented that immigration ranked lowest among “most important issue” options.  In fact, numerous polls have shown majority support from Republican voters for some version of comprehensive immigration reform.

What does this new paradigm mean for the 2012 race? For Mitt Romney it means that his lurch to the far right in the primaries puts him in trouble with Latino voters.  Far from the 40% he’ll need to be competitive in Latino-influenced swing states, he is polling in the mid to low 20s with Latinos.  As a result, he will either pull out his Etch-a-Sketch (don’t hold your breath) or work through his surrogates to try to discourage Latino turnout (a far more likely scenario, as we argue here).   For President Obama it means that he not only has to maintain a huge margin over Romney, but he has to mobilize Latino voters so that turnout is high.

What to do?  A USA Today article assessing the candidates’ Latino outreach plans includes advice for President Obama from Gary Segura, Stanford University political scientist and co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions: “We’re not going to have a scenario where (Hispanic) Obama supporters switch sides, but we could have a scenario where they get dispirited.”  Referring to immigration, Segura notes that President Obama has “lost the ability to bring up the topic without action. But a bolder move, such as stopping deportations of DREAM-eligible kids — which he could do with executive action — that would shift the conversation and energize Hispanics.”

The New York Times agrees, editorializing today that President Obama should use his executive authority to provide relief to DREAMers: “There is one important thing Mr. Obama could do right now to give these young people hope: He could use his executive authority to halt deportations of those who would be eligible for the Dream Act…Mr. Obama’s reticence in the face of restrictionist fervor has preserved a dismal status quo. The Dream Act is one small measure of relief that most Americans would support and young immigrants need. Mr. Obama should do everything he can to protect these young people now.”

In Huffington Post, Rep. Luis Gutierrez applauds the NYT editorial, and describes its message to the President as: “not only Yes We Can but Yes We Should dial back deportations, especially for immigrant youth.”  He talks about the fact that DREAMers are “precisely the type of immigrants the public broadly supports and sees as assets, not liabilities,” and says that supporting DREAMers would paint a “clear political contrast” between Obama and Mitt Romney, who has already vowed to veto the legislation.

We agree – a bold move from President Obama to provide relief to DREAM youth would be a good thing for the country, allowing young people who grew up here to contribute even more.  And given the new immigration politics paradigm, it would be smart politics as well.