JESSICA BADER: The purported political implications of immigration reform seem to go a long way towards explaining why it stalled a few years ago and why its fate is uncertain now. Democrats in swing districts (particularly in the Rust Belt) fear Lou Dobbs-style demagoguery from the right that could cost them their seats in Congress. Republicans worry that immigration reform would result in a growing bloc of Hispanic voters increasingly loyal to the Democratic Party. However, both sides have it wrong.
The passage of immigration reform, likely to be carried by the majority of Democrats and a handful of Republicans, would likely provide a short-term boost to the blue team, as Hispanic voters who consider it a top priority would be more motivated to vote. The long-term effects would not necessarily favor the Democrats. Yes, it’s true that in 2008, in an environment where one party was largely supportive of immigration reform and the other was largely opposed, Barack Obama and Democratic congressional candidates received about two-thirds of the Hispanic vote. Once immigration reform is settled law, many voters who currently see it as the most important issue to them might base their votes on other considerations. (For what it’s worth, I would expect a similar dynamic once gays are allowed to serve openly in the military and get married in any state – voters once influenced primarily by civil rights concerns would be free to vote based on foreign policy or climate change or taxes.)
The House vote on healthcare reform back in November illustrates this. While all 21 Hispanic House Democrats voted for the healthcare reform bill, 8 of them (all men, and mostly representing California’s Central Valley and the southernmost regions of Texas) also voted for the antiabortion Stupak-Pitts Amendment (which captured the support of slightly less than one quarter of House Democrats overall). That such a large chunk of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus supported this socially conservative policy serves as a reminder that Hispanic alignment with Democrats on immigration and economic issues does not mean that Hispanics are supportive of the Democratic agenda as a whole.
We’ve already seen that a “compassionate conservative” who is supportive of immigration reform can do well with Hispanic voters, as George W. Bush received 44% of the Hispanic vote in 2004. We’ve also seen that, even though Social Security and Medicare were major Democratic initiatives that became law with small amounts of Republican support, the elderly voters who benefit from these programs do not vote overwhelmingly Democratic; in fact, 65 and older was the one age group won by John McCain in the 2008 election. Democrats may not receive the long-term electoral advantage that most observers assume would result from the passage of immigration reform. They should keep fighting to pass it, however, for the simple reason that it’s the right thing to do.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Consider me a skeptic that Immigration Reform, championed by the Democrats and demagogued by the Republicans, will lead to Hispanic voters leaving the Democratic Party in droves. History has shown that groups who get big victories from political parties tend to stay awfully loyal.
The best example of this, of course, is the Democratic Party and civil rights. African-Americans have certainly not turned away from the Democrats since LBJ’s landmark reforms of the mid-sixties; indeed, the group is a more reliable Democratic voting bloc than ever.
Jewish voters have also remained solidly Democratic, irrespective of economic strata. And it is harder to point to a reason for this. Woodrow Wilson did appoint the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, but generally, it is less about specific legislation and more about a legacy of intolerance on the other side of the aisle. Republican attempts to out-Israel the Democrats this past decade have come to naught, and how they have responded to the diaspora may be a big reason why.
So looking at Hispanic voters in the wake of immigration reform, you have the political consequences of specific action, combined with the decades of race-baiting from the GOP. Hispanics also make less in median income that whites, far closer to African-Americans, providing an economic incentive to vote Democratic as well.
I think Immigration Reform seals the deal for Hispanic voters to provide a significant voting bloc for Democrats in the next generation. Considering the demographic trends of the country overall, that is only good news for the Democratic Party, and provides a huge long-term imperative to get Immigration Reform done.