These days, the precocious teenage political junkie who lives across the street from me understands that the notorious intransigence and truculence of House Republicans can be explained in great part by their ingeniously gerry-mandered, extremely homogeneous congressional districts. Yet in the past couple of weeks, it has been Democrats who have dug in their heels, as Republican stalwarts have begun to budge on one of the most contentious issues currently facing America: immigration reform. Prodded by their leadership, House Republicans are contemplating what only a few months ago they vigorously rejected: legal status for individuals who arrived here illegally when they were children.
So far, contemplating is all they are doing. On July 23 a hearing was held by the House subcommittee on immigration and border security to discuss the “Kids Act,” touted by majority leader Eric Cantor and Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte as a way to address the concerns of young people who are here illegally through no fault of their own. Yet as several of the Democratic and Republican members who spoke at the hearing emphasized, there is as yet no legislation to discuss. So it is not at all clear whether Cantor and Goodlatte are talking merely about legal status for undocumented minors or an actual path to citizenship.
Still, for a party whose presidential candidate was arguing last year that illegal immigrants should “self-deport” and whose congressional leaders in 2010 resoundingly rejected legislation providing a path to citizenship for illegal youth (the DREAM Act), the Kids Act, even as a gleam in Eric Cantor’s eye, represents a sea change in Republican thinking about illegal immigration. Anyone who doubts that should listen to subcommittee chairman Trey Gowdy’s striking opening statement at the hearing, delineating how the rule of law applies differently to adults and to children.
Yet the Democratic response to this sea change has been swift—and negative. To be sure, some Democratic members have acknowledged their Republican colleagues’ movement. But they have also rejected it as inadequate. As House Democratic caucus chairman Xavier Becerra declared, “There is no reason why Democrats should be part of this political game that Republicans are playing.” Suddenly, it’s the Democrats who are rigid and unyielding.
Intransigent Democrats are of course no novelty. After all, they too get elected from gerrymandered, homogeneous congressional districts. And even more than Republicans, they are in thrall to well-organized interest groups that tend to enforce ideological rigidity. It’s also true that congressional Republicans have come to the party late, so they should expect to endure the predictable posturing and bargaining behavior from Democrats.
Yet there’s another aspect of Democratic intransigence that reflects widely overlooked peculiarities of immigration politics. For example, it is difficult for the advocacy groups that have been supporting the push for “comprehensive immigration reform” to compromise and agree on a fallback position. This dynamic has been insightfully and honestly explored by Georgetown law professor Philip G. Schrag in his neglected insider’s account of advocacy on behalf of immigrants and refugees during the 1990s. As Schrag explains in A Well-Founded Fear: The Congressional Battle to Save Political Asylum in America, immigrant advocates invariably come together in coalitions whose dominant ethos is, not surprisingly, “consensus politics and transparent decision-making.” Yet these principles are extremely difficult for large, cumbersome coalitions to sustain. Particularly in a policy area as complicated as immigration, intense negotiations typically boil down to a few key players making tough decisions in private.
There’s more. Schrag also highlights that compromise is difficult for immigrant advocates because they feel a “sense of stewardship for the interests or constituents they represent, most of whom did not choose their representatives, even in the fictitious sense that stockholders choose their boards of directors.” Immigrant advocates are consequently left “wondering if they have sold out the interests they claimed to represent.” Schrag goes even further and observes that such “advocates perpetually doubt their right to take less than an absolutist position, even when it is clear that advocating an absolutist position will result in worse legislation than seeking a compromise.”
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.