Prospects Improve for Comprehensive Immigration Reform after the Election

November 09, 2012

By Victor C Johnson

The election of 2012 is, thankfully, over. The outcome gives great hope to those of us who spend our time working for comprehensive immigration reform. President Barack Obama expressed a clear and consistent commitment to immigration reform and won. The Maryland DREAM Act passed handily, which bodes well for immigration reform nationwide.

Hispanics turned out in record numbers. This did not happen by accident. It is the result of months and years of work by colleagues—ethnic groups and immigration activists—to register Hispanics and get out the Hispanic vote. Many worked hard for these outcomes—including members, leaders, and staff of this association. Like Obama, they too had a good ground game. I salute them; they give us all much to be proud of and thankful for.

Now, the real work begins. The fact the President got 71 percent of the Hispanic vote creates both the opportunity and the obligation to address comprehensive immigration reform as a first order of business in the new Congress. But it does not guarantee the outcome. Only we can do that.

What the Election Tells Us—And Doesn’t Tell Us

People in Washington are debating whether this was a status quo election or a game-changer.

We can’t answer that question yet. The meaning of this election remains to be determined as people now in power draw their own conclusions and test them in the crucible of rough-and-tumble, real-world politics. It will be determined by politicians pursuing their own interests and incentives, particularly as they begin positioning themselves for the next election.

President Obama will begin his second term in January having pledged to tackle comprehensive immigration reform next year. But as Mitt Romney reminded us during the campaign, this is not the first time that Obama has made that pledge. It didn’t happen during his first term for compelling reasons; the economic crash, other political imperatives, and congressional dysfunction. Now, the president will be under severe pressure to make good on his promise. So why would it be more achievable this time? The math is probably still fundamentally the same as it was when Congress last attempted comprehensive immigration reform in 2005 and 2007. A winning coalition probably still requires roughly two-thirds of Democrats and one-third of Republicans. House Republicans have never been willing to bring bills to the floor if they had primarily Democratic support. Why would they change now?

The president gave his answer during the campaign. Republicans in Congress would be forced to conclude from the election results that they could not continue to alienate Hispanics with their anti-immigration stance if they expected to win future presidential and statewide elections, he said. I hope that is true and much post-election commentary, including by Republicans themselves, would support it. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, said that 2012 must be the last year that Republicans run as the party of angry white men. Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, said that his party needs to become more inclusive of minorities. Importantly, House Speaker John Boehner has now endorsed comprehensive immigration reform for the first time, and expressed confidence that he can work with President Obama on this issue.

What Will Republicans Do?

Only time will tell what these statements mean. We won’t know until the conversation gets down to the level of detail. The speaker has made bold statements before, only to be pulled back by his very conservative caucus—whose votes he will need to be re-elected speaker later this month. A key player is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who famously said last year Republicans’ key goal was to ensure Obama was a “one-term president.” Bolstered by Senate rules that give the minority the ability to stop legislation, McConnell opposed every important thing Obama and Democrats wanted to do. Will McConnell and Senate Republicans remain committed to those same scorched-earth policies of total opposition to Obama, or will they recognize that posture helped bring about their defeat Nov. 6? Which view will prevail in the party? We don’t know yet.

The Republican Party will abandon its anti-immigration posture on the day it decides that anti-immigration no longer works for it politically. It is not a stretch to think this might happen fairly quickly. The party has not always been anti-immigration, as my colleague Mary Giovagnoli wrote in the American Immigration Council’s “Immigration Impact” blog on Sept. 7. As recently as 2004 the Republican platform called for comprehensive immigration reform, which President Bush had proposed in his State of the Union address. In 2005, Arizona Republicans Senator John McCain and Representative Jeff Flake joined Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois in bipartisan immigration reform legislation. A Republican reversal on immigration would arguably be nothing more than the party returning to that earlier position.

Such a reversal would only happen as a result of a knock-down, drag-out battle within the party between those who argue that the party cannot be a whites-only party and the forces on the right who believe to their core that the party lost this year because it wasn’t conservative enough. The right seems to win these battles more often than not, which helps account for the party’s steady rightward drift. One reason why some of the Republicans who were pro-reform in the 2005 immigration debate switched to the anti-immigration side in 2007 is the Tea Party. The calculation will not rest solely on the analysis by party elders of the demographic breakdown of the vote. To paraphrase Tip O’Neill, all politics is personal. Prospects for immigration reform rest fundamentally on what conclusions Republicans draw as individuals from this election. Those who must run again in two years—i.e., the congressional party—will make this calculation:  If I come out for immigration reform, will the Tea Party run a candidate against me and beat me? It was that calculus that led Republicans who supported immigration reform in 2005 to run away from it in 2007. Thus the question is not just: Does this election demonstrate that Republicans can’t win a presidential election without the Hispanic vote? The question is more:  Does this election demonstrate that I can alienate the Tea Party without losing my next election? The latter question will prove harder to answer than the former, because the Tea Party is still out there, prepared to run a candidate against any apostate.

It could take quite a long time for this intra-party debate to play out. It won’t be an academic debate. It will more likely be a series of debates on the future of the party, masked as legislative debates in Congress. The 113th Congress could seek to address several issues, including immigration reform, in which the votes will be, in part, test votes on questions involving the future of the Republican Party and whether Republicans feel freed from the tyranny of the Tea Party.

Recapturing the Public Narrative

What can President Obama do to influence the outcome of this process? This gets to another result of the election that remains to be played out. The big thing we don’t know about the second term, which was addressed by several analysts during the campaign, is whether Obama’s second term will be a “large presidency” or a “small presidency.” Will the president of bold ideas, that people thought they elected in 2008, re-emerge in the second term? Or will the president decide that in this climate he can only hope to accomplish small things? Some—including some in the administration—argue that the president is doomed to play “small ball” in his second term—in particular, to focus on things he can do without Congress. But the president who gave a victory speech in Chicago on Tuesday night didn’t sound like that; I hope that is the president that we will see in the second term. Obama came into office four years ago with big ideas. Many of them—including immigration reform—remain to be addressed. The people just gave the president another chance to move forward in these areas. He can and should seize it.

One of the ways the president played into the Republicans’ hands in his first term was by failing to articulate a narrative that would have helped the public understand his policies, how they fit together, why he was pursuing them, and what they meant for the country. This is part of the essence of leadership, and the president didn’t do it well. This is certainly the case with respect to immigration reform. As a wise colleague has said, the first question of immigration reform is not, “what’s the solution?” It is, “what’s the problem?” The president has failed to explain to the American people, and repeat over and over, and weave into the narrative of his leadership, what problems that immigration reform will solve. People want to know:  To what problem that affects me, is immigration reform a solution? Absent that, the anti-immigrant faction defines the debate—which is exactly what has happened. As he approaches the moment of truth in the 113th Congress, the president will pay a price for having neglected to educate the public on its stake in this issue. I understand that this was not an electoral imperative—but it is an imperative for delivering on the electoral debt that the president now owes. He must step up and recapture the public narrative on this issue—and soon.

The American people are capable of understanding their stake in this. They can understand immigrant entrepreneurs and job-creators; immigrants who provide essential services in their communities; immigrants who harvest their food; immigrant doctors, nurses, educators, and scientists. They can understand that their communities lose when some residents can’t go to college and become productive, tax-paying, job-creating citizens. They can understand—because both parties now recognize it—that we aren’t going to deport 11 million people, so we need to find a way for them to become fully functioning members of their communities. The majority of our citizens want to deal with these issues responsibly, in accordance with their values as Americans and their image of Americans as compassionate, forgiving people. If the president can show the way, people will follow.

What Advocates for Reform Can Do

Finally, much is required of us. We need to do a much better job of helping the president weave his narrative. If we ask the president to go boldly forward on this issue, we need to summon the same courage in ourselves, and not let ourselves be deterred by those who would attack us. We need to redouble our political organizing and our grassroots efforts; it is our job to make sure the votes are there when they are needed. We all need to pull together for comprehensive immigration reform. Those who may be tempted to pursue their own narrow legislative goals and leave everyone else to fend for themselves must support comprehensive reform. It remains the only way they will succeed. The business community—an essential part of the immigration reform coalition—needs to bring more clout to the table. Republicans in Congress who are normally responsive to business do not seem at all compelled to heed business on this issue. That needs to change.

Importantly, comprehensive immigration reform will only be achieved through compromise. Compromise must be expected by both sides, and compromise will be painful for both sides. We cannot walk away from the table when we don’t get everything we want. Our job as leaders in this debate will be to explain the ultimate compromise to our constituencies.

The meaning of this election will be forged by us. The hard work begins now. Let us take the good hand that the election has dealt us, and play it.


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