State and Federal Immigration Policy Challenges Republicans and Democrats

The politics of immigration policy are tricky for both parties.
by | September 2010

The immigration issue seems to run like the tides -- it ebbs and flows in a rhythm that appears to be coordinated with the economy's health. Not too many years ago, a lot of states allowed illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, health benefits or even receive in-state tuition to attend college. But as the economy has soured, illegal immigration has flowed back into the mainstream of ultra-sensitive issues.

Both the substance and politics of the immigration dilemma are complicated, for both political parties -- and at the federal and state levels.

The focal point right now, of course, is the Obama administration's lawsuit to block an Arizona law making it a crime for immigrants to live illegally in the state and requiring law enforcement officers to check documents of anyone they apprehend if there's "reasonable suspicion" they are illegal immigrants. The U.S. Justice Department's suit contends that immigration policy is a federal matter, and that states cannot supersede federal authority. A judge in late July blocked sections of the bill from becoming law and sent the matter to a federal circuit court.

Nine states have filed friend-of-the-court briefs defending Arizona and "a long tradition of state sovereignty," as Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox put it. Cox, a Republican, is running for governor this year, as are two of the other Republican state attorneys general who filed briefs.

Democratic governors are spooked. In mid-July during a closed-door session with White House functionaries at the annual National Governors Association conference in Boston, they made it clear they thought the lawsuit's timing was politically dangerous. They are right: All national polls -- the Pew Research Center, Rasmussen Reports, Gallup and others -- show that most people support the Arizona statute. In the Pew Research Center poll, for instance, 73 percent of respondents approved of requiring people to produce documents verifying their legal status, and more than two-thirds agreed with allowing police to detain anyone who cannot verify their legal status. Gallup found that 56 percent of those identifying themselves as independents opposed the federal lawsuit.

Those numbers are alarming to Democrats in Congress as well as in the state houses. Thirty seven governorships are up for election this year; 19 of them now are held by Democrats. Numerous state legislatures are closely split, and a strong Republican trend could tip control in the critical year when states will reconfigure legislative districts in the wake of the new Census data.

But immigration politics are tricky for a couple of reasons. Polls may show widespread support for Arizona, but other polls show that only about a third of respondents support deporting all illegal immigrants, and two-thirds would support some process allowing citizenship. Second, the rapidly growing Hispanic vote, which Republicans have had some success in courting in recent years, is being driven toward the Democrats because of the Arizona debate, and that could affect races where that population is concentrated.

That's one reason why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is openly promoting a comprehensive reform bill, even though he well knows that action is unlikely this year. His Senate seat in Nevada is in jeopardy and Hispanics, about one-quarter of the population, may well provide the margin to keep him in office. That's also why Arizona Sen. John McCain, in an effort to save his seat against former Republican Rep. J.D. Hayworth, switched positions from being a reform leader in an attempt to pass a compromise bill three years ago. Now he is opposed to anything approaching what he earlier advocated. "No amnesty," McCain snapped during a recent radio interview. "Many of them need to be sent back."

President Obama has formally supported the outlines of a comprehensive reform plan, much like the one his predecessor, George W. Bush, proposed in 2007. But there is some question as to how much Obama is willing to invest in its passage. Much like Reid, he may be making a play for holding the Hispanic vote, which he won by a 2-1 margin in 2008. But until the mid-term elections are over, he has no intention to do much.

If so, the subsequent federal lawsuit looks like a political blunder. It hurts a lot of Democratic congressional and state candidates. In his criticism of Republicans for unanimously opposing reform, Obama may have alienated a core of Republican moderates on the issue whose votes he will need whenever legislation finally makes it to the floor. The suit turns the issue into a federal supremacy vs. state prerogatives issue, which may help the legal case in the courts but not the political case with the public. And it gives credence to those who have been saying for many years -- across a wide range of both red and blue issues -- that in the absence of federal action, the states must take charge. ("The feds are responsible for immigration policy," the saying goes. "States and locals are responsible for immigrants.")

In the meantime, zany things happen: A list of 1,300 supposedly illegal immigrants is swiped from a Utah state database and passed out to local media with an anonymous call for their deportation. The New Jersey Supreme Court in effect rules that police officers must use a language that those they apprehend understand when informing them the law requires a breath test -- in a state with 1.75 million immigrants, about a quarter of whom do not speak English fluently or at all.

In the absence of a national policy, this is what we can expect.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus
pharkness@governing.com  | 

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