By: Alan Wirzbicki
After years of frustration, immigration reform advocates believe the stars have aligned since Tuesday’s election to give them the best shot in years at bringing millions of illegal immigrants out of the shadows and fixing an immigration system widely seen as inadequate for the modern economy.
President Obama’s victory, fueled by massive support among Latino voters, has produced a new dynamic in Washington: a Democratic president who owes a huge debt to Latinos, and a Republican Party desperate to find a way to avoid another landslide loss among one of the fastest-growing sections of the electorate.
“Democrats want reform, and Republicans need it. That’s the new dynamic,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group.
Even before the election, Republican strategists were increasingly worried that the GOP’s hard-line opposition to immigration reform was endangering its long-term viability by making the party toxic to Latinos.
Since those fears were borne out Tuesday, several Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, have said the GOP needs to reckon with immigration reform and pass a comprehensive bill.
“This issue has been around far too long,” Boehner said in an interview with ABC News on Thursday. “I’m confident that the president, myself, others, can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.”
But immigration has divided the GOP for years, and some Republican lawmakers are already pushing back, setting up a potential internecine battle if immigration reform comes up next year, as expected.
Most comprehensive proposals that have circulated in the past would have increased border security, instituted verification requirements for employers to ensure they are not hiring illegal workers, changed the visa system to bring in more high-skilled workers, and provided a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants here now.
Under most comprehensive plans, those immigrants would have to pass a background check and prove they can speak or are studying English, among other requirements.
President George W. Bush proposed a comprehensive plan in 2004 that would have allowed illegal immigrants to apply for legal status and stay in the country for up to six years.
But after years of negotiations, the plan, backed by Bush and senior lawmakers in both parties, collapsed in 2007. In the Senate, 15 Democrats and 37 Republicans voted against the proposal; many GOP lawmakers complained that opening any pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants would reward lawbreakers and punish immigrants who had played by the rules.
Since then, the GOP has adopted an increasingly hard-line tone on immigration, opposing legislation that would provide immigrants who entered or stayed in the United States illegally a way to gain legal status.
But on Sunday, as the immigration issue reemerged with new prominence, Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said he had resumed negotiations with Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on an immigration overhaul.
Schumer said the two had drawn up a blueprint that he said has ‘‘the real potential for bipartisan support, based on the theory that most Americans are for legal immigration, but very much against illegal immigration.’’
The senators promoted similar overhaul plans in separate interviews on Sunday news shows, and both said no path to citizenship should be available until the country’s borders are secure. Graham did not directly mention working on a plan with Schumer, the chairman of the immigration subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Already, the GOP’s new openness on immigration reform is opening up fissures in the party.
After Boehner’s interview last week, Representative John Fleming, a Louisiana Republican, told the Associated Press that Boehner was ‘‘getting ahead of House Republicans when he commits to getting a ‘comprehensive approach’ to immigration.’’
‘‘There’s been zero discussion of this issue within the conference, and I’m urging the speaker to talk with House Republicans before making pledges on the national news,’’ he said.
Yet others saw Tuesday as a wake-up call that could not be ignored. According to exit polls, 71 percent of Latinos voted for Obama, up from the 67 percent he received in 2008. More importantly, the number of Latinos in the electorate has grown sharply, especially in battleground states like Florida, Colorado, and Nevada, where 18 percent of the electorate was Latino, up from 15 percent in 2008.
Those voters are, by definition, not illegal immigrants. But according to one poll, 60 percent of Latino voters in New Mexico, 66 percent in Arizona, and 69 percent in Colorado had a friend, relative, or co-worker who is an illegal immigrant. In another poll, 60 percent of Latino voters said Mitt Romney’s hard-line stance on immigration made them less enthusiastic about him.
During the Republican primaries, Romney said he favored “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants, and opposed the Dream Act, a narrow immigration bill that would have created a pathway to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, but not adults who came here illegally.
After the congressional GOP blocked that bill, Obama instituted some of its provisions with an executive order that was decried by Republicans but was popular among many Latino voters.
Still, Obama came under fire during the campaign for not keeping his 2008 promise to pursue broader immigration reform. Now that Latino votes helped keep him in the White House, expectations are high that he will deliver this time.
Politically, Republicans may have backed themselves into a no-win situation. They could dig in and continue to obstruct immigration reform, and risk further alienating Latinos. Or they could embrace reform, which would give Obama a huge victory, allowing him to deliver on his promise and perhaps bolster the Democrats’ standing among Latinos still further. Many Republicans also fear that many of the new citizens created by a reform law would vote Democratic.
The political dividends of the immigration issue have not been lost on Democrats. In a pre-election interview with the Des Moines Register, which was initially off the record but later released, Obama credited the GOP’s opposition to immigration reform as a factor giving him an edge in the election.
“And since this is off the record, I will just be very blunt,” Obama said. “Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community.”