The Magazine

The Coming Immigration Deal

Congress will follow the polls.

Jun 19, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 38 • By JEFFREY BELL
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THE POLITICS OF IMMIGRATION REFORM changed on March 27. That's the day the Senate Judiciary Committee approved (in a vote of 12-6) an immigration reform bill that included increased border security and law enforcement, a guest-worker program, and a path to legalization for the roughly 12 million illegals who live in the United States.

Almost immediately, polling on the immigration issue shifted toward the pro-immigrant side. Specifically, when voters were asked whether they favor "enforcement only" (like the bill passed by the House in late 2005), a guest-worker program only, or a bill similar to the Senate bill that embodied both these elements and legalization, they overwhelmingly favored the Senate approach. This polling pattern has not changed significantly in the weeks since late March--weeks that included floor debate and Senate passage (by 62-36) of the Martinez-Hagel bill, which resembles the Judiciary bill reported to the floor on March 27.

There is a second way the issue changed that day. It became the dominant domestic policy debate of the 109th Congress and in the nation at large. It's an issue on which virtually every American voter has an opinion. For that reason, it became an issue that Congress will feel great pressure to act on before its term expires.

When the 109th Congress began meeting in early 2005, Social Security reform was picked by many to dominate domestic policy debate. One reason it did not is that, by its nature, fixing Social Security is a postponable issue. The demographic deficits projected for the decades when the baby boom retires have not begun to build up. Since few voters were attracted to the president's proposals for personal accounts and progressive benefit reductions, or to hinted Democratic alternatives that mostly involved higher taxes, the electorate found inaction highly preferable.

None of this is the case regarding immigration. The issue has been building for years, in very visible ways: In our work force, in our schools, on our streets, and in more and more states and regions. It's safe to say that few voters believe immigration has been handled well by elected officials of either party at any level of government--federal, state, or local. Given this background, try to picture the public's reaction to a congressman or senator returning home this fall and announcing that, given all the available alternatives, Congress did the right thing by doing nothing. Since the public's reaction to such an announcement is not likely to be favorable, or perhaps even printable, it seems likely that this is a picture we will never see. That is, the 109th Congress will ultimately come to agreement on some version of immigration reform.

What, then, are the parameters of public opinion? Though most people at most times in most countries are at the very least nervous about a massive inflow of foreigners, Americans are of all nationalities the least nervous. We have more experience with immigrants than any other nation. Almost all of our voters are descended from immigrants, and most American voters believe most immigrants come for good reasons--to work and to enjoy our higher level of political and economic freedoms.

What voters do not like is an immigration system that increasingly relies on, and winks at, breaking the law. Voters never liked this, but they became especially unfavorable to it after 9/11. They want greater control of our borders, and more enforcement of immigration laws inside our borders.

Political elites, Republican and Democratic alike, often seem to operate on the assumption that voters are either pro-immigrant or pro-enforcement, but not both. In fact, most voters see no contradiction between the two. Nor is there a huge difference between rank-and-file Republicans and rank-and-file Democrats. Solid, but by no means unanimous, majorities in each party favor both immigration--including a path to legalization for those already here--and increased enforcement of immigration laws.

According to Ed Goeas, a pro-immigration pollster who works mainly for conservative Republican candidates, that has been true for many years. Goeas has a special right to his opinion: In polling for the Manhattan Institute, he predicted months in advance that once a comprehensive immigration reform was on the table--which happened on March 27--comprehensive reform would become the most popular policy choice in the electorate.

Another surprising Goeas finding is that Republican primary voters--not activists, but primary voters--are likely to react unfavorably to a candidate who comes across as anti-immigration or as favoring a purely punitive approach toward immigrants. This may account for some GOP primaries in recent years where a front-runner in a race for an open House seat--e.g., State Rep. Carl Isett in Texas 19 in 2003 and State Sen. Rico Oller in California 3 in 2004--go down to an upset defeat following a decision to make anti-immigration the centerpiece of radio and/or TV advertising.

Those races stand out because a decision to make anti-immigrant themes the centerpiece of a GOP primary race was then relatively rare. Today, with immigration having emerged as the central domestic issue in American politics, it will be in play in many more races, with both parties maneuvering for advantage.

In last week's special election in the 50th District of California, for example, GOP restrictionists scored a win with the election of former Rep. Brian Bilbray. What is less well known is that with about a week to go, GOP polling had him behind the Democrats' pro-immigration nominee, Francine Busby, and that a blunder on an immigration-related issue almost certainly turned the election away from her.

Busby told a predominantly Hispanic audience that they didn't need "papers"--in the context, this seemed to mean proof of citizenship--in order to vote for her. In other words, she was not just pro-immigrant, but pro-illegality when it served her electoral interests.

This violates a cardinal rule of the immigration debate: You can be pro-immigrant as long as you are pro-rule of law at the same time. Other immigration advocates (for example, Gov. Gray Davis in the 2003 California recall) have made a similar blunder by favoring the awarding of driver's licenses to immigrants who are here illegally. Arrangements of this kind embody everything about the present immigration regime that voters detest. On top of that, a politician who nominally opposes illegality, but in practice winks at it, comes across as a supreme hypocrite, however well-intentioned he or she may be.

The difference between the politics of a comprehensive solution, and an ad hoc winking at illegality, was recently brought home in two elections in Herndon, Virginia. Herndon's local government set up a work center for immigrants (many if not most of them illegal) to come to every morning to get a day's work. The mayor and his allies on the council were pro-immigrant but were ejected from office by local voters. They were seen as building around an existing system of illegality.

Yet in the Virginia gubernatorial election a few short months earlier, Republican nominee Jerry Kilgore, who had run ads in the Washington media market attacking his opponent for a mildly pro-immigration stance, was swamped by the same Herndon voters. The same conservative-leaning voters who disliked the apparent condoning of illegality at their local work center voted against a candidate who verged on making hostility to immigration a central campaign theme.

Conservative politicians from Texas seem to have a leg up in navigating these minefields. Such politicians most emphatically include President Bush and his senior political adviser, Karl Rove. Immigration is not a new issue in Texas, which is at one and the same time the only big state where non-Latino whites are now a minority and that also routinely supports conservatives (it went for Bob Dole in 1996, for example).

Without coming across in any sense as anti-rule of law, Bush has raised his share of the Hispanic vote in every election he has been involved in, first in Texas and more recently the nation as a whole (the only two national exit polls taken in 2004 showed Bush losing the Hispanic vote to John Kerry by 9 percentage points, while Dole lost the Hispanic vote by more than 50 points eight years earlier). It will take all of the Republicans' skills to bring home a comprehensive immigration bill from this Congress, but if they do so the odds are they will be acting in accord with the American vision of immigration and will enable their party to competitively fight elections of the future in a nation increasingly populated by our latest wave of immigrants.

Jeffrey Bell, a principal of Capital City Partners, has worked since 2001 as a consultant to the National Council of La Raza on immigration reform.