No matter who wins the presidential election, U.S. immigration laws will significantly change in the next four years.
I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter who gets elected, and the change may not be the sort of “immigration reform” many immigrant advocates are hoping for. But after months of watching how the issue of immigration has played out during the campaign it’s clear that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can afford the current system to go on much longer.
It’s easier to picture comprehensive immigration reform happening in a second Obama administration. In a recent interview with the Des Moines Register President Obama said he was confident of getting reform done in the first year of his new term. I know, this sounds a lot like what he promised in 2008. Instead Obama achieved the dubious distinction of having presided over more deportations than any president in U.S. history.
Obama surely understands that millions of immigrant voters, especially Latinos, won’t forgive him if he fails to deliver on this promise a second time. A lack of reform early in Obama’s second term could seriously jeopardize the Democratic party’s historic lock on Latino voters. This would rob future Democratic presidential candidates of a reliable voting bloc that played a key role in Obama’s 2008 victory, and is an important part of his 2012 strategy in battleground states such as Virginia, Florida, Colorado and Nevada.
Democrats could feel the impact as early as the 2014 midterm congressional elections. Disenchanted Latino voters might turn to the GOP, if not in the hope of reform, at least to show their disgust over a do-nothing Democratic administration. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—widely expected to become the first Latino U.S. Senator from Texas—would then be seen as the vanguard of a new, larger Republican Latino presence in Congress.
The pressure to find a quick and effective fix to the immigration crisis is equally urgent for Republicans. GOP Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina looks at the dramatic growth of communities of color and concludes “the demographics race we’re losing badly.” Graham was quoted in The Washington Post during the Republican convention as saying “we’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
But angry white guys and gals are not likely to drop their vehement opposition to legislation that would allow millions of undocumented immigrant workers to get on the road to becoming U.S. citizens. So what would or could Romney do as president to reconcile demographic reality with the demands of conservative members of his own party? The candidate who famously suggested that undocumented immigrants “self deport” might propose a guest worker program to allow immigrants to work in the U.S. legally, but not become citizens. That’s an economic fix that some immigrant workers and their employers might accept, and avoids alienating the Republican base and Tea Party conservatives in Congress. Romney would probably also push for a modified version of the DREAM Act to address the needs of young people who were brought to the U.S. by their parents and are now living here without papers.
Romney could defend these measures as important for the economic recovery. That might resonate with Latino voters who have consistently told pollsters throughout this long campaign that the economy is their number one issue. Even so, immigration is the issue that affects them on a gut level. Daily News columnist Albor Ruiz put it this way: “A politician’s attitude towards immigration is decisive in earning the trust of Latino voters.” Comprehensive reform proposals from the Obama administration are more likely to hit the emotional mark with Latinos.
Whatever the election’s outcome, immigrants, whether they are Hispanic or Asian, are vitally important to the future of both political parties. More and more candidates from immigrant communities are running for office and the ranks of immigrant voters are growing dramatically in states across the country. These are trends that the next president can’t afford to ignore. My guess is he won’t.