The politics of immigration

Let’s be honest. The support offered for the immigration bill by some Senate Republicans does not herald a new era of bipartisan comity and cooperation. 

Nor does it reflect some newfound commitment to treating immigrants with dignity and fairness. It’s raw politics.  

Sophisticated Republicans recognize they cannot win either the White House or a number of Senate seats without being able to crack the Latino vote. 

And while immigration is not the most important issue to the Latino community, demagoguing against immigrants, as GOPers are wont to do, helps earn the enmity of the community.  

The Republicans’ own post-election assessment of their failures, conducted under the auspices of Chairman Reince Priebus, boldly underlined the party’s political imperative.

“We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” the report argued. “If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink. ... If Hispanic-Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e., self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.”

The report’s conclusions are based on hard data. 

Beyond their own surveys of the Latino community (and our own, with The Tarrance Group, for Univision), myriad public polls make clear that American voters at large support comprehensive immigration reform. 

Gallup asked whether respondents would “vote for or against a law that would allow illegal immigrants living in the U.S. the opportunity to become citizens after a long waiting period if they paid taxes and a penalty, pass a criminal background check, and learn English?”

By 87 percent to 12 percent, Americans would support a version of comprehensive reform akin to the Senate bill. 

The United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll found 71 percent wanting there to “be a way for those who meet certain requirements to stay in the country legally.” Only a quarter said they should not be allowed to stay in the U.S.

This is not to say that every aspect of the legislation is popular. Taxpayer-funded benefits, among other aspects, generate opposition. Yet, all in all, voters favor immigration reform.

Many Republican senators who voted “aye” were responding to the political calculation embodied in both the data and in the Republican National Committee report. Establishment custodians of their party’s future and putative presidential candidates alike recognized the need to get past immigration reform in order to make critical inroads into the growing Hispanic electorate. 

In the House, where presidential ambition is muted, politics are differently structured, and Latinos appear less present in constituencies, there is little hope for comprehensive immigration reform. That’s less because attitudes are fundamentally different, and more because the politics are.

As I’ve noted before, Democratic constituencies — young voters, minorities etc. — are heavily packed into cities, and therefore into a smaller number of congressional districts. As a result, Republican districts on average are about 11 percent Hispanic, while Democratic districts are about twice as Latino. 

Presidential and Senate candidates have to run statewide; House candidates do not. Nevada illustrates the issue. The state is about 27 percent Latino, while the two Democratic districts are 43 percent and 27 percent Hispanic. 

By contrast, the solidly GOP district is 16 percent and the swing congressional district is 20 percent Latino. In short, the political imperative to support immigration reform is far more muted for Republican House members than for senators and presidential candidates. 

Politics doesn’t push Republican House members to support immigration reform — and they don’t. Politics does conspire to incentivize senators and presidential candidates to take serious cognizance of the Latino vote — and lo and behold, they now support immigration reform. 

That doesn’t mean that GOP House members lack scruples or ideology — it’s just that political incentives matter in political bodies. 

As a result, don’t hold your breath for immigration reform to come barreling out of the House.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.