Despite the current conventional wisdom that Congress will not pass comprehensive immigration reform this year, immigration actually has the potential to be the “bipartisan breakthrough” issue that surprises pundits in Washington. But first, policymakers need to see past the misplaced misconceptions and understand the real politics of comprehensive immigration reform.
Reform is very much in the interest of all Americans, particularly now. With the nation facing a huge budget deficit and revenue shortfalls, what could be better than to create millions of new taxpayers by requiring immigrants in the U.S. illegally—and their employers—to pay their fair share of taxes. Comprehensive immigration reform would generate over $1.5 trillion in GDP over the next ten years, while at the same time cutting costs for enforcement and deportation by hundreds of billions of dollars.
A series of notable developments since the last attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 2007 underscores the newfound strength of the reform effort. New coalitions were formed; old political alliances were strengthened; non-traditional partnerships were developed, with diverse groups that often worked at cross-purposes but see mutual interests in enactment of comprehensive immigration reform. From faith to labor to law enforcement, more and more voices are demanding action on comprehensive immigration reform for the good of their communities and constituencies.
Even more significantly, the country’s demographics have shifted dramatically and Latino voters who care deeply about this issue have increased their political clout. In recent years they have had a decisive impact in elections at all levels of government, including the 2008 race for the presidency, and are poised to play a crucial role in scores of contested House and Senate races across the country in 2010.
In major cities and traditional gateway states as well as diverse regions of the country and “new immigrant” states, Latino voter turnout is on a steady rise, and whether and how Congress engages on the issue of immigration reform will have an impact on their choices in November. Meanwhile, opponents of immigration reform in Congress will find it harder and harder to get re-elected in a growing number of states and districts because of the clout wielded by Latino voters, who are holding politicians accountable for their promises and their rhetoric.
More recently, the Massachusetts special election has clearly contributed to the nay-saying in Washington. Political pundits would have us think that the results of that race meant that Congress should run from tough problems rather than solve them. Some Democrats are scared of the immigration issue in an election year, and some Republicans think that denying the president a win would be the best strategy heading into the 2010 mid-term elections. But smart leaders in both parties understand that these views are short-sighted.
Democrats need to show that they can work on a bipartisan basis to solve tough problems— something that independent voters crave—and come through for a growing constituency of voters that shifted significantly towards Democratic candidates in 2008—something that Latino voters crave. Republicans need to acknowledge that this issue has brought out the worst in their party in recent years, and has backfired with the fastest growing group of new voters in the country.
It will be very difficult for the GOP to win the presidency in 2012 unless their candidate can win 40% of the Latino vote. To have a chance of achieving that goal, Republicans must get this issue off the table, in a bipartisan fashion, and shift the focus of the battle for Latino votes to other issues more favorable to the GOP.
While the forces of opposition to comprehensive immigration reform are formidable, their stranglehold is far from monolithic—and may be weakening. Lou Dobbs, once the most visible and possibly most influential of reform opponents, is no longer poisoning the airwaves nightly with his anti-immigrant rhetoric. The relationship of anti-immigrant organizations to the Tea Party Movement is tenuous at best; their mild to overtly racist comments during the Sotomayor confirmation debate and the earthquakes in Haiti have severely harmed their credibility, and their ability to swing elections is clearly non-existent.
Yet “conventional wisdom” remains a stubborn foe to efforts to reform immigration laws this year. The following pages explain why conventional wisdom about the policy and politics of immigration reform is dead wrong, and why politicians of all political affiliations would do well to understand the real politics of immigration reform.