Immigration reform fizzles as campaign issue for Democrats

Immigration reform has fizzled as an issue for Democrats, who are barely mentioning it on the campaign trail despite making the issue their top domestic priority in 2013 and 2014.

Latino voters, who are the most energized about overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, will have little impact on the battle for control of the Senate, with the possible exception of Sen. Mark Udall’s (D) race in Colorado.

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White working-class voters will play a more important role in the midterm election compared to the 2012 presidential election. They are not energized by immigration reform. Instead, they are concerned about downward pressure on wages, which the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has linked to higher immigration levels.

Coincidently, President Obama’s support among white voters without college degrees has steadily eroded.

Democratic strategists admit their party’s record on immigration reform will do little to help candidates this year, although they predict it could be a potent weapon in the 2016 presidential election.

“In light of turnout models it’s probably not as strong an issue as it would be in presidential years,” said Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist and former advisor to several senators from conservative leaning states such as former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).  

“I still think Democrats have fumbled this issue because they allow the issue to be played on Republican terms,” he said. “Republicans are trying to suggest immigration is the reason wages are suppressed and it’s a racial issue. I don’t like it. That’s what they’re doing cynically. They’re saying when you get immigration, you suppress the wages of non-immigrants, i.e. white people.”

He said Democrats need to “put everybody in the same boat” and steer the debate away from race.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has led the effort in Congress to link high immigration flows to stagnant wages but many Republican lawmakers have not joined in because the business community wants more guest workers and visas for high-skilled employees. 

Despite the lack of concerted effort by GOP leaders in Washington to used immigration reform as a weapon against Democrats, the issue could hurt them among white working-class voters who are slipping away from Obama. 

Polling by Rasmussen, a GOP survey group, showed working and middle-class Americans oppose large expansions of immigration flows. People earning under $30,000 prefer a reduction in immigration by a 3-1 margin, according to the group’s data.

A Pew Research poll showed that 69 percent of the public believes the federal government should restrict and control people coming to live in the United States more than it already does.

The Senate-passed immigration reform bill, which all Democrats supported, would substantially increase legal immigration levels.

Polls showing public opposition to higher rates of immigration have been obscured by other surveys — many commissioned by business groups — showing a majority of Americans generally favor immigration reform. 

A recent automated survey by Harper Polling of more than 500 likely voters in 26 states found that 86 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of independents say the immigration system needs to be fixed. Majorities also said Congress should act on the issue this year, according to the poll.

But such general survey data often do not distinguish between various approaches to immigration reform such as increasing border security, boosting legal immigration flows and granting a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Democratic strategists who specialize in the concerns of white working-class voters say immigration reform does little to mobilize them.

“In southwest Virginia nobody talks about immigration. They’re talking about how they’re getting screwed economically,” said David “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic strategist.

“Kids are fleeing Honduras but at the same time kids are fleeing small-time, third-tier markets in the United States to go to Metropolitan markets. People see their own kids leaving here in the U.S.,” he said.

“Democrats talk about the morality of rescuing these kids from Central America. I’m for all that. At the same time, what about the kids fleeing small-town and rural America because there are no economic opportunities?” he added.

With the exception of Udall, Democratic candidates for Senate realize that immigration is not a driving issue in the midterm election. They instead are emphasizing the issues of economic fairness, which the Senate Democratic leadership has made the centerpiece of its 2014 election platform.

Jarding, who has advised Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), said that is a smart strategy.

“If anything, I would argue that your push it harder. They need to convince middle-class voters that they’ve been fighting for them while Republicans have been obstructionists,” he said.

Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who has studied the Democratic Party’s relationship with white working-class voters said the real reason for their alienation is the poor economy.

“The ratings have been pretty bad. There’s been a falloff in his approval rating among all demographics but it’s been particularly sharp among white non-college folks,” he said of Obama’s approval rating. “The continued problems with the economy have really sucked [up] the air.”

Teixeira said white working-class voters are concerned about stagnant wages but they do not connect the problem with higher immigration rates.

He called immigration reform a “non-issue” among white working-class voters.

CBO estimated the average wages for the entire labor force would be 0.1 percent lower in 2023 if the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill became law. But it projected wages would be 0.5 percent higher in 2033 under the bill compared to current law.

Udall stands out as the exception among vulnerable Democrats as someone who has made immigration reform a prominent issue in his campaign. 

He called on Obama to slow the rate of deportations and bashed his opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo), for not supporting comprehensive immigration reform similar to what the Senate passed in 2013.

Unlike in other Senate battlegrounds, Latino voters make up a large chunk of the electorate. About 21 percent of the state’s population is Hispanic.

Mike McSherry, a Republican strategist who formerly served as deputy political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the mass migration of unaccompanied minors across the Texas border bolsters undermines the Democratic argument for comprehensive reform.

He said the growing crisis bolsters the argument made by many Republicans that border security should take priority over a creating a path to citizenship, a key element of the Senate bill.  

“It’s easier for Republicans now because they can say we want to secure the border first,” he said.

Many Senate Republicans voted against comprehensive immigration reform legislation because they said it did not guarantee total border security before granting legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.

House Republicans now say they will not act on the issue because they cannot trust the president to enforce the law.

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano claimed last year that the Southern border was secure. But that assertion has now come into question amidst a migratory surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America.