After working as a lobbyist for anti-immigrant organization Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and then being re-elected to Congress in a special election, Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) incredibly declared: "The biggest scandal facing the U.S. isn't [disgraced ex-congressman Duke] Cunningham, but the 11 to 12 million illegal aliens in our country. That's what people feel impacts their lives.” Bilbray credited his June 2006 win to his hardline stance on immigration, and encouraged other Republicans to follow his path in November.
His House colleagues had already rammed through one of the harshest anti-immigrant bills the nation has ever seen in late 2005. Then, after Bilbray’s win in the summer of 2006, Indiana’s Rep. John Hostettler “led” his colleagues in a series of 22 “field hearings” on immigration. These taxpayer-funded campaign events promoted the House’s enforcement-only bill and were supposed to guarantee Republicans’ re-election in November.
Even some Democrats believed in the power of the anti-immigration vote. Rahm Emanuel famously called immigration “the third rail of American politics. And anyone who doesn’t realize that isn’t with the American people.”
But there’s a problem with this view about the politics of immigration. It’s just not true. The anti-immigration wedge strategy employed by Republicans in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012, was a colossal failure.
In 2006, Republicans lost both chambers of Congress. Bilbray won, but Hostettler lost. Randy Graf lost. J.D. Hayworth lost. The same happened in 2008, when Republicans lost the presidency as well as 20 out of 22 competitive congressional races where immigration was an issue.
By 2010 some Democrats, noting the changing demographics and importance of the issue to Latino voters, developed an alternate analysis: support for the DREAM Act and reform that includes citizenship for 11 million immigrants without status is actually smart politics. It shows Latino voters you care and shows all voters you have practical ideas to solve problems.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) followed the “lean into the issue” path to victory in 2010, helping to stop the “Republican wave” at the Rockies and keep the Senate in Democrats’ hands.
The 2012 elections proved this new paradigm once again. When President Obama granted relief from deportation to 1.4 million DREAMers, he changed the course of the election. The policy created a huge spike in enthusiasm among Latino voters, and was supported by non-Latinos as well. Mitt Romney continued to follow the Bilbray playbook – calling for self-deportation and pledging to veto the DREAM Act, which made him toxic to Latino voters and proved he was out of step with the rest of the electorate.
In the biggest irony of all, this year Rep. Brian Bilbray lost to a pro-immigrant reform Democrat, as did his California GOP colleagues Dan Lungren, Jeff Denham, Tony Strickland, and Mary Bono Mack. Turnout among Latino, Asian, and other voters with a connection to the immigration debate was high, and support for Republicans who demonized their families was low.
Since the elections, conservative icon Sean Hannity said he “evolved” on immigration and now supports a path to citizenship. According to the Wall Street Journal, at a closed-door House Republican Conference meeting Rep. Lungren told his soon-to-be former colleagues that they had to get on board with immigration reform. Speaker John Boehner said “a comprehensive approach is long overdue.”
Also last month Rahm Emanuel delivered a far different message than before, saying that “Democrats need to push for comprehensive immigration reform to ensure that, true to our history, we continue to be the party of opportunity and inclusion.” Emanuel also said that “the rest of America has caught up” with long-time immigration reform champion Rep. Luis Gutierrez. In fact, it’s Emanuel who has finally caught up to the American people on immigration reform.
If this political breakthrough holds, we’ll be at the brink of a policy breakthrough. If not, Republicans still face that demographic cliff.
Tramonte is the deputy director of America’s Voice.