The Unspoken Immigration Debate

The Unspoken Immigration Debate

The reform discussion and poll numbers are at odds.

Conventional wisdom in Washington has it that Congress will pass a major immigration bill this session because the Hispanic vote in the last election, overwhelmingly Democratic and growing as a proportion of the electorate, served as a kind of fire bell in the night for Republican leaders. They must capture a greater share of that vote in presidential elections to remain politically viable, the reasoning goes, and that creates an incentive for a legislative breakthrough on the issue. As John Avlon, writing in the Daily Beast, put it, "The depth of the demographic problems facing Republicans is beginning to dawn on them in ways that hadn’t been the case before."

Perhaps. Some Republican leaders clearly are looking at immigration through this prism of conventional wisdom. But the analysis is superficial, focused on the machinations of Washington’s power interrelationships. What’s missing is a cold-eyed assessment of the preponderance of voter sentiment. Only by looking at that can we understand the country’s massive divide on the immigration issue.

It is well understood that the 1987 immigration law, designed to solve the problem of the large influx of illegal immigrants into the United States, was a massive failure. It was sold as amnesty for the three million illegals already here in exchange for securing the border and eliminating the issue as a persistent sore upon the body politic. The three million got their amnesty, but the sore only got bigger as some eleven million more illegals poured into the country, no doubt drawn in part by the lure of eventual amnesty.

In the view of many Americans, this represents one of the greatest frauds perpetrated upon the people by their government over the past couple of generations. The result is that no immigration bill can clear Congress that includes provisions that reasonably can be considered amnesty. But many U.S. voters don’t trust Washington politicians to operate honestly on the matter. They think—rightly—that many actually favor amnesty and wish merely to finesse the issue in order to get a law passed that resolves the knotty question of those eleven million by easing their way to legal status.

What drives this suspicion is the great divide in the emotional sensibilities that different Americans bring to the issue. Liberals see it through the prism of human compassion. Their hearts vibrate at the indomitable spirit of those who risked so much and braved such hardship to make it into America, and they want to ease the way for these people. Liberal reporters have for years graced the pages of their newspapers and broadcast outlets with touching stories about this human drama. Pulitzer juries encounter specimens of such coverage every year, often rewarding them with the country’s highest journalistic honor. This sensibility can be experienced in stark terms on MSNBC, in elaborate locutions in The New Yorker and in stealthily subtle form on NPR. But it is pervasive and passes for political correctness in many circles.

But a majority of Americans see the issue as one of sovereignty. For them, a country that can’t protect its borders is a country experiencing an erosion in its national identity. They wonder what the value of their citizenship is if anyone can lay claim to it. They fret a bit over the fate of a country based upon the rule of law if such an important law of sovereignty can be flouted so massively and with so little consequence. And they fear the prospect of growing cultural tensions within the country as ethnic sensibilities inevitably clash over time as minorities flex their increasing political and cultural muscle.

Both of these outlooks are freighted with powerful political emotion, rendered all the more intense because at base we are talking about what kind of country the United States will be. The liberal response to conservative concerns goes something like this: Get over it. The country is in a demographic transformation, and soon the country’s whites are going to be a minority. There’s nothing that can be done about it, so get over it.

Here’s where we come to the demographics of the issue, as they affect the kaleidoscopic twists and turns of American politics. After last year’s presidential election, it was much noted that Republican candidate Mitt Romney garnered only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, which constituted 10 percent of the 2012 electorate (compared to 9 percent in 2008 and 8 percent in 2004). Fully 71 percent of that vote went to President Obama. This is widely viewed, and correctly so, as representing a major threat to Republicans in presidential elections.

Add to Romney’s 27 percent of the Hispanic vote another important number—the overall white vote in the election. It constituted 72 percent, whereas a Romney victory would have required that whites make up at least 74 percent of the vote. Romney’s white vote total was 59 percent—and significantly higher in some key states. Hence, Romney could still win, and with only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, if the white vote were sufficiently large. But 72 percent can’t do it.

Bear in mind that some Republican presidential candidates have done much better than Romney among Hispanics. Ronald Reagan carried 35 percent and 37 percent in his two presidential elections. George W. Bush carried 35 percent and 40 percent in his campaigns. But Bob Dole carried only 21 percent in his 1996 campaign, and George H.W. Bush got only 25 percent in 1992.

Hence, as Republican politicians see it, their party must do three things to win presidential elections: first, it must get something closer to 35 percent of the Hispanic vote; second, it must maintain its proportion of the white vote at something approaching 60 percent; and, third, it must generate enough turnout among whites to maintain their proportion of the electorate at 74 percent or higher. A tall order, rendered all the more difficult by ongoing demographic trends.

All this is part of Washington’s conventional wisdom on the issue, and so far it is largely correct. But it goes awry in assuming this translates into sufficient force in congressional politics to ease the way for major immigration legislation along the lines of the so-called "Gang of Eight" senators or the slightly different rendition put forth by President Obama. Many commentators have noted that these proposals bear a remarkable similarity to legislation put forth by President George W. Bush in 2007. It was killed in the Senate, largely over the amnesty issue. Arizona’s Republican senator John McCain, a leading backer of the bill, promptly revised his outlook to foreclose any talk of amnesty or "a pathway to citizenship" before the border had been effectively secured.

But it’s different now, according to the conventional wisdom, because Republican lawmakers have been chastened by last year’s vote totals. The problem here is that the preponderance of voter sentiment is not incorporated into these calculations. And the voters will decide the outcome.

Even a casual look at recent public-opinion polling shows where the voters are on the issue. Begin with the controversial law passed by Arizona in 2010, which among other things allowed police to check the immigration status of people while enforcing other laws. The Supreme Court struck down some provisions of the Arizona statute in holding that the federal government’s power to enforce immigration laws supersedes state action on the issue. But it upheld the emotion-laden immigration-status checks. But in the meantime the law had become a lightning rod for conflicting political sentiment on immigration.