What President Obama’s 71% of the Latino Vote Means for Immigration: Immediate Prospects for Comprehensive Immigration Reform?

Almost immediately after President Obama’s re-election on November 6, 2012, the issue of immigration and the Latino vote dominated the news, and the prospect of comprehensive immigration reform rekindled.

National Journal Editorial Director Ron Brownstein recently described the election results and the politics of immigration this way:

“President Obama’s reelection doesn’t guarantee a breakthrough in the long stalemate over immigration reform. But it did instantly invert the debate.  Since the collapse of a bipartisan immigration-reform effort in 2007, Democrats have divided over the issue while Republicans have remained in lockstep, particularly in opposition to any plan that included a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally. Now it’s the reverse.”

He added:  “Democrats are talking confidently about forcing the issue in 2013, while Republicans are fracturing. For the first time since George W. Bush’s presidency, a genuine debate over immigration is emerging within the GOP, with advocates of comprehensive reform regaining their voices. . . .”

While some who dominate the GOP still say the party should oppose any proposal that includes legalizing undocumented immigrants and that reform efforts should start by taking only very small steps, now other voices in the GOP are arguing for comprehensive change.

It is against this election backdrop that in early December a national coalition of leaders from across the political spectrum and representing dozens of religious, law enforcement, and business leaders (including the likes of AOL founder Steve Case) gathered in Washington to tell the Administration and Congress that there is a new consensus on immigrants and America. Their message is: common sense immigration reform must be a priority for 2013, our broken immigration system must be fixed, and a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million foreign nationals who contribute to our communities and our economy must be included in the debate. The gathering, “Forging a New Consensus on Immigrants and America,” was organized by the pro-immigration National Immigration Forum.

Members of Congress are heeding the call. A bipartisan group of eight leading members of the Senate, four Democrats and four Republicans, have been meeting in recent weeks to discuss common ground on immigration. The working group members are Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), Mike Lee (R-UT), John McCain (R-AZ), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ). (Flake is moving to the Senate from the House of Representatives.)

At least one religious coalition is urging the introduction of comprehensive immigration legislation within 92 days of the start of Obama’s second term, choosing that number because a biblical word for immigrants, or “strangers,” appears 92 times in the Old Testament and 92 symbolizes the importance of protecting the stranger.

According to insiders, however, a framework for immigration reform is expected in January. The framework is expected to include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented foreign nationals and additional work enforcement provisions, as well as a whole host of other provisions, ranging from increasing nonimmigrant and immigrant visa numbers to eliminating the “three- and ten-year” bars. A bill is expected to be introduced in the Democrat-led Senate in the spring of 2013, followed by hearings. Legislation that is introduced in the Senate will need at least a handful of Republican votes to advance to the House, which could happen in the fall.

Some conservatives who favor comprehensive immigration reform argue that a Republican partnership with President Obama means politically that they can claim a share of the authorship just as the Republican Congress did when it joined with President Clinton to restructure welfare. Conversely, they say, letting the Democrats and President Obama complete reform without real Republican support helps the Democrats further label the GOP as the anti-immigrant party to its longer-term detriment.

While supporting a pathway to citizenship will not guarantee Hispanic votes for Republicans next election, many believe that if the Republicans block comprehensive reform, they risk alienating Hispanics further. And, by embracing reform they can take immigration off the table and engage Latinos – and Asians too – on other issues.  In any event, the 2012 presidential election results have forced the GOP to question their message to newer Americans, many of whom heard Mitt Romney’s call for “self-deportation” as extremely offensive and synonymous with a call for them to start packing their bags.

Immigration reform alone probably will not be sufficient to significantly improve the GOP’s standing with Hispanics. But, it is an important and necessary first step.  More importantly, it is good for America.

Stay tuned. . . .

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