Capitol Idea: Immigration Reform, Could It Become The Democrats’ 2010 Kryptonite?

Harry Reid may well have had the 2010 elections in mind, including his own dicey bid for re-election come November, when he insisted this week that Congress complete immigration reform this year.

To be sure, the Senate has much other unfinished business on its plate — notably comprehensive energy and climate legislation, not to mention the need to pass spending bills to keep the government funded beyond the end of the current fiscal year in September.

Although the legislative calendar may be getting tight for lawmakers who want to head for the doors this fall to head home to campaign for a next term, hopefully the Senate majority leader understands that enacting immigration reform would be well worth it. Indeed, accomplishing immigration reform could possibly make all the difference on Election Day for Reid and other Democrats.

Reid’s office on Tuesday released a statement reaffirming his commitment to finishing immigration reform during the current Congress.

“Sen. Reid has been consistent for months about his desire to pass an immigration reform bill that is tough, fair and practical,” says Reid spokesman José Dante Parra. “At the beginning of this Congress, Sen. Reid included immigration reform among the Senate’s top priorities and that is where such reform remains. This reform must include strong and effective enforcement of our borders; a requirement that immigrants here illegally register with the government, learn English, pay taxes, pass criminal background checks, and get in the back of the line to earn legalization; and punish unscrupulous employers who abuse immigrants and undercut American workers.”

Reid’s spokesman echoes a sentiment from the White House that says Democrats will base their reform package based on bipartisan legislation under development by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

If Republicans think that they can win big this year by tapping anger on the Right among tea partyers and other conservatives over enactment of healthcare reform, Democrats may find the antidote in immigration reform.

An immigration overhaul holds potential for a one, two, three punch against Republicans heading into the midterm elections.

First, immigration reform holds real potential to neutralize the right wing’s motivation to vote come November. Republicans are counting on conservative animosity toward the new healthcare law to drive voters en masse to support GOP candidates this year. Enactment of immigration reform, though, could easily dissipate the enthusiasm among conservatives that Republicans are counting on.

The last time Washington took on immigration reform, it was 2007 and George W. Bush sat in the White House. Bush strongly supported the reform, envisioning it as his signature second-term accomplishment. But the Republican president soon found the initiative defeated at the hands of activists and lawmakers from his right who attacked it as “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

Democrats would be wise to move immigration legislation simply for this demonstrated ability to cleave the GOP. Republicans left splintered over immigration policy could blunt much of their momentum — real or perceived — heading into the 2010 election.

Second, as much as immigration holds real potential to dampen GOP spirits, it would have the opposite effect amongst Democrats. And, after the prolonged intraparty battle over healthcare, Democrats desperately need an issue to rally the Left — and immigration reform very much fits that bill.

Finally, enactment of immigration reform specifically would further bind to the Democrats one of the nation’s fastest-growing voting blocs: Latino voters.

In an iffy election year for Democrats, solid Latino support could make a world of difference in a number of races, including Reid’s own difficult path to winning a fifth term, according to data from America’s Voice, a Washington-based organization that supports comprehensive immigration reform.

America’s Voice notes that nearly 10 million Latinos voted in 2008—a growth of about 2.5 million voters compared to 2004 and nearly four million since 2000. Nearly one in five
congressional districts (79 in total, including 54 Democratic seats) is at least 25 percent Latino. Latino voters are also spreading out into new states and areas, and will play a key role in more than 40 contested congressional and gubernatorial races in 12 states this year, the organization adds.

America’s Voice cites a poll of Latinos that finds 73 percent of respondents say thatthey were very likely to vote in November 2010, and that fully 65 percent say they were more likely to support Democratic candidates for the House and Senate. However, 72 percent of Latino voters declared that they would not even consider voting for a candidate whose stance on immigration reform was to try and deport most undocumented immigrants — which is the approach most favored by conservative, anti-reform activists.

Reid’s commitment to immigration reform this year could be nothing more than enlightened self-interest. The Nevada Democrat has acknowledged the trouble he’s facing against potential Republican opponents this year. Since Latino voter turnout in his state exploded 157 percent between 2000 and 2008, success on immigration reform could be Reid’s only ticket back to the Senate come 2011.

The publisher of On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered government and Washington for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington.

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4 Responses to Capitol Idea: Immigration Reform, Could It Become The Democrats’ 2010 Kryptonite?

  1. Dave Paulson says:

    I’m afraid the immigration issue could go either way for Democrats. If they support legislation that’s too liberal, they risk losing votes from left-of-center moderates (like myself), but if they push to the right, they risk losing the Latino vote that helped push Democrats over the top in 2008. This is not the 1-2-3 combination punch you present. It’s potentially a very slippery slope.

  2. Mike Cooper says:

    I know this is a political site, but I wish you had mentioned one other good reason for taking up immigration reform; it is good for the country!

    America desperately needs its border secure and the 12 million illegal immigrants in our midst, out of the shadows, paying taxes, and demanding a minimum wage so they are no longer driving down the income of everyone else. For god sakes, even BUSH understood this!

  3. Scott Nance says:

    Mike, I agree immigration reform would be good for the country. It’s a fortunate circumstance where good policy makes good politics.

  4. Scott Nance says:

    Dave, considering that Sen. Lindsey Graham, the conservative from S.C. is a co-sponsor of this legislation, I’m not sure how it could be “too liberal.”