At the heart of this recalibration of both parties is immigration; the country is demanding common sense immigration reform that entails both genuine policy discussions and compromise. One can be sure there will be finger pointing from party leaders as the fiscal cliff negotiations evinced. Latinos, however, have a sharp warning to both parties: Do not play politics with immigration.
Republicans will suffer the sharpest backlash if they allow their antiquated talking points, like “secure the border first”, which is only marginally more tolerable than “self deportation,” to dominate the discussion. Republicans remain concerned that President Obama will receive the credit for any immigration reform; but the party should be more concerned of the high cost of not acting at all.
Scores of reports have outlined the decrease of illegal crossings and crime at historic lows across border states. Republicans can still win if they begin with a practical and humane immigration proposal; or at this point just level the playing field. An era of anti-immigrant, anti-Latino rhetoric and figures like Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is coming to an end.
Across the aisle, Democrats have greatly benefited politically from the extreme wing of Republican Party: with far-right Republicans like Mitt Romney, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), amongst others, the anti-immigrant rhetoric made it easy for Democrats to devise crafty campaign messaging. At this same time, Republican leadership bowed to the Tea Party nearly every time in the primaries. This cost them Senate and House seats in key states.
But the campaign season is over. Democrats must not turn the public immigration debate we will soon have into a political weapon. Immigration was and continues to be a powerful issue that many Americans, especially Latino and Asian communities, consider important and personal. They are demanding the same intensity from President Obama as he makes the case across the country as he did with the fiscal cliff and health care.
While it is a positive sign that Republican leadership is once again ready to take the drivers seat, the country should remain skeptical. Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and others in the GOP are approaching the issue with mixed intentions. Politics is everywhere and fair game, but 2016 Republican ambitions must be secondary to modernizing the nation’s immigration system that meets a 21st century economy.
There is historic momentum for a comprehensive immigration package. Republicans should not hijack the issue by prematurely presenting piecemeal legislation and focusing on enforcement. At the same time, Democrats must ensure that their time and energy is managed to allowed fluid reform, even if it comes piecemeal. Reforming the visa system to expedite current applications of those waiting in line, the DREAM Act, a practical temporary worker program, and providing an opportunity for the undocumented population to earn path to citizenship should be a starting point.
Ultimately, what will win a very informed Latino electorate will be pro-immigrant reforms like the DREAM Act. The Latino electorate flexed their muscle last election because they wanted to see common sense immigration reform and the DREAM Act seriously debated, introduced, and passed; anything less will have to be accounted for at the 2014 midterm and 2016 general election.
Vargas is executive director of the Dream Action Coalition.