Barack Obama won re-election in 2012 in part because he was able to secure roughly 71% of the Hispanic vote. As America’s fastest growing minority, currently comprising 10 percent of the population, Hispanics proved this past election that they have become a crucial demographic in the electorate.
I believe that Obama was able to garner the Hispanic vote for two reasons. One, the Democrats pledged on their election platform to work on immigration reform. But perhaps more importantly, the Republicans did not do themselves any favors with the Hispanic community. In fact, even Obama was quoted as saying in an off-the-record interview that, “Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community.”
So perhaps in gratitude for his overwhelming Hispanic support in the election, Obama has made immigration reform a top priority. For the most part, he has gotten all the Democrats behind him in the effort. Even some Republicans, such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio have worked with Democrats to make such reform a reality. However, I have numerous misgivings with the prioritization of immigration over other more pressing issues, the proposed path to citizenship within the reform itself, and the political implications of such a piece of legislation down the road.
Let’s first address the timing of the push for immigration reform. Of course I can understand that Obama wants to capitalize on the wave of Hispanic support in the immediate wake of his electoral victory and reward this ever-growing part of his base, but even with some Republicans joining the reform effort, Hispanics are not going to abandon the Democratic Party in droves if an immigration bill doesn’t pass in the near future.
However, it is only the first year of Obama’s second term. Focusing on immigration right now, so soon after the election, is premature and feels more like blatant political pandering to only one part of his base than anything else. Granted, we need immigration reform and some sort of legislation should be passed by the time Obama finishes his second term. But considering that there are greater problems facing the country, it seems to me that Obama’s policy priorities are misplaced and he is ignoring the needs of ordinary Americans. This is a distraction that can only benefit the GOP.
Instead of starting off his second term by trying to solve the divisive immigration issue right off the bat, Obama should first introduce progressive economic policies that have widespread support from the American people and address the country’s pressing economic woes. Passing bills to increase jobs,closing tax loopholes on outsourcing jobs overseas, and boosting exports to reduce America’s massive trade deficits are all measures that should have a much higher priority for Obama and the Democrats than they do now.
Obama should also fight to preserve Social Security and Medicare in their current forms indefinitely by eliminating the payroll tax cap, rather than proposing compromises to uncompromising Congressional Republicans. Creating jobs and protecting popular earned benefits programs are sound policies that will generate considerable goodwill for the Democrats at the polls, because they tangibly benefit the greatest number of the American people by helping the struggling middle class and combating the widening income inequality gap. In addition, this utilitarian approach will give the Democrats more than enough political capital to tackle immigration reform later in Obama’s second term.
Now, onto the merits of the proposed immigration reform itself: the main sticking point is the path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the US. The “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013” was formulated by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” and was passed by the Senate on June 27. The bill is now headed to the House for approval.
However, the GOP-dominated House does not want a possible path to citizenship in any immigration reform bill. Senator Chuck Schumer has stated that no Democrat will vote for the bill without a path to citizenship.
Here, I believe that both sides have to compromise, as the two positions are in direct conflict with one another. Boston College’s very own Peter Skerry, political science professor and immigration policy expert, offers a solution that I happen to agree with. He proposes that illegal immigrants who came here as adults, with no criminal record, should be given a path to permanent residency rather than citizenship. However, children of illegal immigrants who were not born in America, and adults who came here as children, should be afforded the opportunity of citizenship. This is fair, as children cannot be held accountable for the decisions made by their parents.
Indeed, Skerry’s plan could prove to be popular with the American people. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 65% of all voters, and 77% of Hispanic voters, support a path to legal status (read: not necessarily citizenship). This puts illegal immigrants with no criminal record, and their children, into the system and free from harassment or the threat of deportation. Ultimately, I think that Schumer and the rest of the “Gang of Eight” should, and are going to, make this compromise with the House.
Also, Nancy Pelosi has essentially said that if Republicans want to win the White House ever again, they need to pass the bill. I find this to be an inaccurate assessment of the state of the Republican Party. As of now, social conservatism is what is dragging the GOP down, not immigration. I foresee the GOP either forsaking social conservatism in the not-too-distant future, thus ensuring the survival of the party, or a schism of the party that will see social conservatism die a slow death.
Due to this schism that I foresee, the GOP is caught between a rock and a hard place on immigration reform. Being perceived as too lenient on illegal immigrants will not go over well with much of their existing base. But at the same time, what do they have to lose? In the past twenty years, the Republicans have only won two out of six presidential elections, with one out of those two wins merely a technicality thanks to the 2000 Florida fiasco. So, immigration reform could work in the GOP’s favor, if the bill is passed in a broadly bipartisan effort, with or without compromise.
I also don’t think Pelosi should be giving the Republicans any hints on how to win the White House. Rather, shouldn't she should want the bill to pass with only the least amount of Republican support needed? Like I mentioned earlier, if the bill passes with broad bipartisan support, it could potentially cut into Hispanic support of the Democrats. But if only the bare minimum of Republicans join the Democrats in passing the bill, especially if the Skerry compromise is made, then the Democrats essentially have Hispanic support locked up for good, and can successfully paint the GOP as being backwards and intolerant. So it is in the best interests of the Democrats to only get the votes from the other side of the aisle that they need for it to pass, and move on.
Ultimately, I see the immigration bill eventually passing, with Skerry’s compromises. But there will be huge ripple effects of the legislation down the road. If the Republicans broadly support immigration reform, they will benefit more politically than the Democrats will. Considering the timing of such a bill in the absence of any broad economic initiatives so far in Obama’s second term, I see the Democrats as taking an unnecessary political risk and could potentially alienate many of the middle to working class, blue-collar whites that are still a vital part of their electoral coalition.
The winds of public opinion are clearly blowing in favor of the Democrats, as they are more socially liberal than their Republican counterparts. In this day and age, it has become almost taboo in society to be a hardline social conservative. As such, the battles over social issues that we have seen extensively in the past decade will diminish.
This means that the debates in the future will shift to economic issues. This is where both the Democrats and the Republicans have roughly equal support. However, with the libertarians gaining in strength amongst young voters, they will probably take over the Republican Party in the coming years. The Democrats need to steal their thunder. They need to effectively make the case for why their economic policies, which rely on growth from the middle class outwards, are better for the country than the trickle-down alternative. Then these policies need to actually be enacted and implemented, which will lead to greater prosperity for all. But the time for the Democrats to do this is now.