The immigration cliff?

While Washington obsesses about cliffs, ceilings and other metaphors for budget catastrophe, we should keep an eye on the issue of immigration.
January 9, 2013

While Washington obsesses about cliffs, ceilings and other metaphors for budget catastrophe, we should keep an eye on the issue of immigration. On Jan. 2, the federal Department of Homeland Security announced that it would stop requiring some undocumented immigrants to return to their countries of origin to apply for a visa as long they are immediate relatives of a U.S. citizen, and demonstrate that the denial of the waiver would result in extreme hardship to his or her U.S. citizen spouse or parent. As many as 1 million undocumented immigrants in the United States may qualify. When added to the policy announced last June that allows qualified young people to avoid deportation, the rules on immigration are changing.  

Soon the administration will open its spring offensive, hoping to find bipartisan support for comprehensive legislation to break the deadlock on Capitol Hill on immigration reform. There’s reason for hope: Vice president Joe Biden has called Latinos “the center of the nation’s future,”  while conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, writing in the Washington Post, urged Republicans to follow her father’s advice: “Learn Spanish. You will need it to survive in the world you will inherit.”

What a long way we have come since 1994, when California’s Proposition 187 passed by a nearly 60 percent majority. That’s the proposition that denied basic public services like education to undocumented residents. The federal courts eventually overturned Proposition 187, but the impact of its overwhelming support on politics ever since has been undeniable. 

While we think today of Proposition 187 as the catalyst for a Latino surge in California and national politics, it certainly did not seem that way at the time.  Proposition 187’s margin of victory stemmed from white voters, Republicans and conservatives (especially white men) in an off-year election that saw a huge Republican win nationwide. Whites cast 81 percent of the votes in California’s election, which also saw Gov. Pete Wilson ride to re-election on the strength of 187. The immigration issue provided a burst of political strength for Republicans in an era when they could not dislodge Bill Clinton from the White House.

Immigration also divided Democrats and the racial and ethnic groups on which the party relies. According to the Field and the Los Angeles Times Polls following the 1994 election, 36 percent of Democrats, half of African-American and Asian-American voters, and even a quarter of Latinos, voted for Proposition 187. Among white voters, only Jews and white liberals swam against the tide. This was a disaster both for California Democrats and for the party nationwide.  

Immigration became a volatile issue for Democrats, one that they have feared to raise for decades since, and which Republicans used to advance their own political prospects. Even as the Latino and Asian electorates steadily grew, Democrats feared to push too hard for immigration reform. It was safer to let moderate Republicans take the lead.  

Some Republicans made a stab at progressive immigration reform in the mid-2000s, when President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain proposed a plan that resembles today’s Democratic proposal. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the party’s right wing scuttled it. As for the Democrats, even after Barack Obama won the U.S. presidency in 2008 with the help of Latino votes in key states, they were reluctant to push hard. And although Latino votes saved Harry Reid’s Senate seat in Nevada in 2010, the overall devastation of that year’s electoral sweep nationwide further increased Democratic worries. President Obama relied on Republican opposition to immigration reform (noting that he could not get the opposition to support his bill), even as he pursued active deportation policies.

Given this history, it is quite remarkable that today immigration has not only once again become a Democratic issue, but that African-American and Asian-American voters are now joined with Jews in supporting a more progressive stance on the issue. Meanwhile, immigration continues to be divisive for Republicans, and the 2012 race demonstrated that it places their political prospects in great peril.  

Democrats’, specifically Obama’s, new stance on immigration did not hit home until June 2012 — in the middle of the presidential election — when Latino activists made clear their dismay that Obama was delivering so little that mattered to them.  

Obama finally used his administrative authority after Latino groups began to meet with Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio on a similar plan. By April 2012, Rubio was making inroads with frustrated Latino groups, and the White House was very concerned. Had Mitt Romney, who in the primaries had been adamantly opposed to reform, jumped on the Rubio plan, the Democrats would have had a real problem. Competition with Republicans had a real tonic effect on the White House.  

And the Rubio immigration reform boomlet showed that if Republicans ever do get their act together, and if Democrats fail to deliver, the Democratic lock on minority votes that helped them in 2012 may not hold.

Meanwhile, throughout, Jews have remained largely where they always have been: more open to immigration reform than most white voters, except the most liberal, and closer to the position of the minority group — in this case, Latinos — who have been challenging the status quo. At the same time,  African-Americans and Asian-Americans have moved much closer to the position of Latinos than they had been when immigration blasted into the public consciousness in 1994. What once seemed likely to become an era of inter-minority conflict has instead become a strong minority alliance behind the Obama presidency.

History tells us that what changes gridlocks like those we have faced in recent years is not some grand bargain or high-minded bipartisanship. Change actually happens when voting blocs, demographics and coalitions shift, bringing along with them a new balance of ideas. Something like that happened a century ago, when waves of European immigrants, including ancestors of most of today’s American-Jewish community, first influenced cities, then states and then the nation. They were taken for granted at first, and then, when they generated political activity, policies emerged to appeal to them and further motivate them to vote. Today we are seeing a new historical era in which ethnicity will once again change how Americans see their politics and their government. The Jewish community has been part of that conversation twice now, once as immigrants themselves and today as a constituency for immigration reform.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

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