Raphael Sonenshein: The New Politics of Immigration

Few issues in American politics are more contentious than immigration. So, it was noteworthy that last week in a speech at American University in Washington, D.C., President Obama called for a new determination to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Things have shifted rather quickly since George W. Bush first championed a similar plan in 2006. Back then, immigration was going to be the way that far-seeing Republicans and their pro-immigration business base would steal Latinos and Asian Americans from Democrats. There was bipartisan support, with as many as 11 Republican senators supporting a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy and John McCain.

That moment in history was short-circuited by the furious reaction of the Republican base to anything resembling “amnesty.” In his 2008 presidential campaign, McCain did a flip-flop and said he would vote against his own bill if it came to the floor. Today, the only safe Republican position is to define immigration reform as sealing the border and preventing amnesty. The Republican plan to become a multiracial conservative party had already collapsed before Obama won.

So now the ball is in the Democrats’ court.

Latino support helped Obama turn four 2004 red states to blue (New Mexico, Colorado, Florida and Nevada), and there were high hopes that immigration reform would have a new lease on life. But moderate and conservative Democrats in the House and Senate proved extremely reluctant to vote for immigration reform. Those members are White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s pride and joy, and he advised Obama to wait.

Immigration reform seemed to be dying on the vine.

When Obama picked Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to be secretary of Homeland Security, however, he unwittingly set in motion forces that would bring immigration back to the table. Napolitano’s replacement as Arizona governor was Janet Brewer, the Republican secretary of state, who after immediately angering the Republican base by supporting a ballot measure to increase the sales tax, desperately needed a way to save herself from a right-wing primary challenge. Brewer backed the radical Arizona immigration law, thereby redeeming herself with her party. Napolitano had also been McCain’s main challenge for Senate re-election, and with her gone, he tacked farther right to face his only remaining threat, a right-wing primary opponent.

Arizona revived and polarized the national debate, giving Obama both the necessity and the opportunity to reshape the conversation around his centrist position.

Comprehensive immigration reform, as first championed by Bush and now by Obama, includes several key elements:

  1. Secure the border as much as possible. Obama pointed out that he has doubled the number of officers at the border.
  2. Enforce the law. Obama has deported many more people than Bush.
  3. Provide a path to legalization and perhaps to citizenship. Obama argues that undocumented residents should not push ahead of legal applicants. They need to make restitution for their illegal status.

Oddly, national polling has shown majority support both for the Arizona law and for the Obama version of comprehensive immigration reform.

Moving along a parallel path has been the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, bipartisan legislation proposed by Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) intended to help undocumented people brought to the United States as children, age 15 or under. Under this proposal, these young people would be afforded six years of conditional permanent residency and be required to complete a college degree or two years of military service — and stay out of trouble. After those six years, they would receive permanent residency and have the opportunity to apply for citizenship. The DREAM Act, which the Migration Policy Institute estimates could help as many as 825,000 young people nationwide, has drawn more Republican support than comprehensive reform, and even has military backing because of the enlistment aspect. While addressing only a small part of the larger issue, the DREAM Act has the virtue of providing the most positive, tangible illustration of the president’s point that most immigrants work hard and want to contribute.

Obama’s speech made the key point that if reform goes down, it will be the fault of the Republicans, not the Democrats.

“I’m ready to move forward; the majority of Democrats are ready to move forward, and I believe the majority of Americans are ready to move forward,” he said. “But the fact is, without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem. Reform that brings accountability to our immigration system cannot pass without Republican votes.”

As long as the filibuster rule continues to require 60 votes, can immigration reform advocates find a way to pressure a few Republicans to come on board? Republican senators are under enormous pressure from their party not to hand any victories to Obama, and threats of losing committee chairmanships and conservative primary challenges are a lot to overcome.

There will be plenty of pressure on nervous Democrats as well. They have to decide whether to push the DREAM Act now and delay comprehensive immigration reform, go all the way with the DREAM Act as a sweetener for the full package or delay both until after the midterm elections. Some fear that while reform will bolster the party’s long-term position as a multiracial center-left party and could even help the party as early as 2012, when Obama is on the ballot, it may hurt Democrats in November with the narrow electorate that tends to turn out in off-year elections. Others argue that moving ahead now will energize the demoralized Democratic base in November.

These considerations suggest that the most likely scenario will be to move forward on the DREAM Act now, laying the groundwork for comprehensive reform after the election.

If Democrats lose seats in the Senate in November, leaving them with only 54 or 55 senators, their only hope of getting anything done may be to take on the filibuster rule that has forced them to constantly troll for Republican votes in the Senate. If they manage to reshape Senate rules to ensure majority rule, the path to immigration reform, and a host of other issues, could suddenly open up.

In that case, though, there will be no place to hide from the intense cross currents of immigration reform.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.