I (personally) and the organization for which I work (World Relief) have been advocating for significant reforms to our nation’s immigration laws since at least 2006, when President Bush backed a bill that passed the Senate with significant bipartisan support. While I might quibble with a few elements of the bill, I believe that it would fit well within the principles that many evangelical leaders have endorsed as guidelines for legislators, and it would have gone a long way toward accomplishing the three primary changes that I believe any reform ought to do:
- Make it harder to immigrate unlawfully (through enhanced border security and enforcement of employment authorization laws).
- Make it easier to immigrate lawfully, by adjusting our antiquated visa system, tying the numbers of immigrants allowed in to the needs of the labor market, to the goal of keeping immediate families united, and to the national value of offering refuge to those fleeing persecution.
- Create a process by which those who are currently present unlawfully would pay a fine for having broken the law (either by entering unlawfully or by overstaying a visa) and then be allowed to earn the opportunity—if they can show that they have not committed serious criminal offenses, are paying taxes, and are working toward learning English—to eventually become a taxpaying American citizen.
President Bush’s efforts in 2006 failed, stymied by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. A similar effort in 2007 could not get passed either chamber of Congress. While President Obama has endorsed similar proposals, Congress has not seriously considered an immigration reform bill during his tenure. But next year—regardless of whom is elected president—could be the year for immigration reform.
Based on the current polls, it seems likely that the 113th Congress will resemble the 112th in many ways: Democrats will most likely maintain a narrow control of the Senate (but not win the supermajority necessary to overcome a filibuster), while Republicans will likely keep control of the House of Representatives. That means that legislation will need to be bipartisan to pass. In recent years, bipartisanship has been elusive, as the majority of congressional Republicans (as well as some Democrats) have opposed any sort of immigration reform that includes a legalization component for the undocumented. There are two reasons I think (and hope) that will change in 2013.
First, a number of traditionally Republican constituencies are rallying together to demand reform. Last week, I attended the Midwest Summit at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, where business, faith, and law enforcement leaders from ten Midwestern states gathered to “forge a new consensus on immigrants and America.” The gathering included evangelical, Catholic, and Jewish religious leaders; business leaders from the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Nebraska Restaurant Association, the Wisconsin dairy industry, and an Ohio vegetable farm; and a panel of law enforcement leaders that included two Republican state attorney generals. I found the faith panel particularly fascinating: National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson, who recently retired as the pastor of a large church in Minnesota, noted “a massive shift on immigration that is occurring within the evangelical churches in America,” highlighting the wide range of evangelical leaders who have signed onto the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform, a dynamic that is largely new since the congressional debates on immigration in 2006 and 2007. He also noted that this change is occurring not just among leaders, but also at the “pew level”: “We discovered that when pastors of our churches teach what the Bible says, people’s attitudes change on immigration. If people read about what the Old Testament says on ‘welcoming the stranger,’ people change their minds.”
The keynote speaker of the Midwest Summit was Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and a powerful force in conservative politics, who got choked up as he spoke about the need for his party, the GOP, to embrace immigration reform: “Immigration is the most important thing to focus [on] if you’re concerned about America as an economic power,” he said. The Midwest Summit followed similar events in the past year in the Mountain West and in the Southeast: across the country, conservative-learning constituencies are insisting that for a variety of reasons—economic, public safety, and moral—Congress needs to put aside partisanship and create solutions on immigration.
It’s not just good policy for Republicans to embrace immigration reform, though, as Grover Norquist noted: it’s also good politics. Norquist argued that too many Republicans have believed a lie that has been proven wrong in election after election: that voters will punish them at the polls for embracing immigrant-friendly policies. Sure, he said, there are some strong anti-immigrant feelings within the Republican Party, but most within the Party are much more reasonable, and—more importantly—very few actually vote based on the immigration issue. (If they did, Norquist said, we’d have had a President Pat Buchanan or President Tom Tancredo, immigrant restrictionists whose presidential campaigns both went nowhere). In fact, a new poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds that the number of Americans who see immigration as a critical threat has dropped to the lowest level since they began polling two decades ago, and a recent Pew Research Center poll found that immigration ranked dead last among issues that voters overall consider “very important.” More and more Republican voters do support immigration reform of the sort advocated by President Bush, but even those who would say they are strongly opposed are unlikely to decide who to vote for based on a candidate’s stance on the issue.
There is, however, one voting bloc that does rank immigration as an important issue: Latino voters consistently rank the issue at or near the top of issues that inform their voting decisions, and the vast majority support a process by which undocumented immigrants could become citizens (86% of registered Hispanic voters according to the Pew poll; 85% according to a Fox News poll). While Latino voters’ values align closely with the Republican Party platform on many issues, immigration is an extremely personal issue for many Latinos: to paraphrase Grover Norquist’s advice to Republican lawmakers, a Latino voter may agree with you on every other major issue—tax policy, abortion, national defense, education—but she can’t bring herself to vote for someone who wants to deport her grandmother.
Though he has recently promised to champion immigration reform to include a “permanent solution” for undocumented immigrants (without clarifying what that will be), Governor Mitt Romney’s statements during the Republican primary—that he would veto the DREAM Act, that his solution to immigration issues was the “self-deportation” policies of states like Arizona, seeking to make conditions so inhospitable to undocumented immigrants that they voluntarily leave he United States—and his recent announcement that he would end the Obama Administration’s new Deferred Action policy for certain undocumented immigrants who arrived as children, have very likely contributed to his dismal polling among Latino voters. Pew’s polls last week showed Governor Romney polling at just 21% among Latino voters; state polls of Latino voters show him doing even poorer in key swing states such as Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada, where Latinos make up a larger share of the electorate than in the country as a whole. In contrast, George W. Bush—who championed immigration reform policies—received 40% of the Latino vote nationally in 2004 (and won the election).
Given the current state-by-state polls, Governor Romney appears more likely than not to lose the Electoral College, meaning President Obama will get a second term; if Governor Romney could win even the same percentage of the Latino vote as Bush did, he would very likely win. Even if Governor Romney narrowly wins the election, he—and his party—will be mindful of the demographic realities: every 30 seconds, another Latino turns 18 and becomes a potential voter. The number of Latino eligible voters increased by 61% from 2000 to 2010, a trend that will only continue to grow in the coming decades. If 75% or more of Latino voters consistently cast their ballots for Democrats, it will eventually become impossible for Republicans to win a statewide election even in a currently solid red state like Texas. And once that happens, it will become nearly impossible to win the Electoral College and ever have another Republican president. As someone whose interests are represented by the Republican Party on many issues—abortion, for example—I find that possibility startling. It’s also a mistake Republicans have made before: Grover Norquist became emotional as he noted that the GOP bashed Catholics during the 19th century—and then lost the Catholic vote for more than a century. The Republicans have only one option: they cannot stop the changing demographics, but they can change their policies and their rhetoric on immigration to avoid pushing Latino voters to the Democrats—if they act quickly.
Between the growing power of the Latino vote and the increasing discontent among traditional Republican constituencies like evangelical Christians and the Chamber of Commerce with the party’s approach to immigration, 2013 is the year for some serious soul searching among congressional Republicans. I think that Republicans in Congress are smart enough to notice these electoral realities. I also know that there are many who genuinely believe this is the right thing to do, and a few—particularly those seriously guided by their Christian faith—who will do the right thing even if they are not convinced it is politically advantageous. If Speaker Boehner puts forward a strong bill—the McCain-Kennedy framework of 2005 would be a good place to start—the Democrats in both the House and the Senate will likely go along, and the President—whether that is President Obama or President Romney—will sign the bill. That’s my prediction—and also my prayer.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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