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No Kidding

Republicans, Democrats, and illegal immigrants.

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By PETER SKERRY
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To be sure, members of Congress do get elected by their constituents. But do their constituents include illegal immigrants in their districts? Many members appear to believe so, even though those illegals do not get to vote for them. This raises thorny issues about the nature of representation in a democracy. But even before considering these, it is worth stopping to consider how those gerrymandered congressional districts rely on census population data that routinely include illegal immigrants. One result is that many of the 32 or so Hispanic-majority congressional districts include substantial numbers of illegal immigrants.

A good example is California’s 34th District, represented by congressman Xavier Becerra, quoted above. After the recent redistricting, the 34th is over 65 percent Hispanic, and includes Los Angeles suburbs like Huntington Park and Bell Gardens that are classic ports of entry for illegal immigrants. So while in November 2012 voter turnout in congressional districts across California averaged about 250,000,
in the 34th it was only 140,590. And for a variety of reasons, this was an unusually high turnout. In previous years, Becerra’s vote totals were substantially lower. Thus, the American version of “rotten boroughs” is directly attributable to aggregated numbers of illegal immigrants.

It is possible that when Rep. Becerra and other similarly situated members reject Republican proposals such as the Kids Act, they are basing their response on what they hear from the illegals in their districts. But consider: These elected officials are hardly accountable to such politically passive individuals. Indeed, it is worth asking how, exactly, such officials determine what is in the best interests of such “constituents”? Perhaps, like the advocates described by Schrag, these officials are rejecting a compromise that the illegals themselves would accept.

I am reminded here of an interview I conducted in 1984 with a lawyer at the Los Angeles office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). This occurred at a particularly intense point in the prolonged debate over what eventually became the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 and its amnesty provision. At that time, MALDEF was the primary lobby on behalf of Mexican Americans and other Hispanics, even though it was not a membership organization. And while MALDEF supported amnesty, it opposed other parts of the legislation and took a notoriously uncompromising position in opposing the overall package.

As I returned from lunch with the lawyer, we had to work our way through a picket line of illegal Mexican immigrants pleading that the advocacy group compromise and secure amnesty as soon as possible. The lawyer grimaced and proceeded into the building. Once inside, he commented that leadership was sometimes not easy!

Today, MALDEF plays a much less visible role in immigration politics. But the same dilemmas persist. Indeed, we now have evidence from our experience with IRCA that illegals may be willing to accept less than their advocates persist in demanding. Today, more than 25 years after IRCA granted an outright amnesty to 2.7 million illegal immigrants, including the option of full citizenship, we know from Homeland Security data that most of those beneficiaries—fully 60 percent—have become permanent legal residents and have opted not to exercise their right to become citizens.

This is hardly surprising. Most illegal immigrants, especially those from Latin America, arrive here not intending to stay. Their plan is typically to work hard, save, and return home
to their families with enough money to buy land or build a house. Obviously, that is not how it works out for most of them. Yet “the myth of return” remains strong. Even after living here for decades and raising children who are U.S. citizens, notions of returning “home” linger on. While this may be unlikely, such dreams endure, and their impact is evident in the decision not to become citizens.

In the ongoing debate over immigration policy, it has come to be taken as a given that Democrats are eager to build on their 2012 victory and expand their voting base among Hispanics by securing citizenship for as many of the 11 million illegals among us as possible. Other things being equal, this is certainly true. Yet there are few disincentives for Democrats to pursue citizenship for illegals at all costs, even at the risk of illegals remaining in their current predicament. And the fact is those costs will be paid substantially more by the illegals than by Democratic politicians—who almost certainly will not be penalized for pushing for more than many illegals themselves seem to want.

Peter Skerry teaches political science at Boston College and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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