A Progressive Game Changer: Immigration Reform in 2010

by Douglas Rivlin on February 11, 2010

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Progressives need a game changer.  Assuming progressives have the twin goals of helping Democrats avoid a monumental defeat in November and positioning progressive policies to have more sway in the two- or six-years that remain of the Obama administration, progressives need an issue around which to mobilize and energize.  Consider immigration reform.  It builds coalitions on the left, divides coalitions on the right, and mobilizes Latino and immigrant voters who are a decisive factor in American politics. 
Success in politics requires moving people to act.  Unless people are motivated, mobilized, and given something to fight for, they stay home, they don’t vote, they don’t participate.  In that scenario, the status quo goes merrily along unchanged and unchallenged or those few who are motivated and mobilized win – even if they carry misspelled signs and have an incoherent and backwards policy prescription for the country.   

Progressives need a game changer before November if the Democrats are going to hold on to their Congressional majority.  Why bother, you ask?  Because for progressives, even disunited, spineless, cautious, incremental, career Democrats are better than obstructionist, enraged, and enraging career Republicans, no matter what issue you care about.  If progressives take the reins and mobilize voters around key issues that define the agenda this year, their position is much stronger to drive the policy outcomes for the next two- to six-years of an Obama administration.  

And let’s be honest, a Republican Party drunk on tea with an empowered extreme right-wing is downright dangerous.  No matter which issue or issues you have selected as your own off of the progressive menu, it only gets worse if that element within the Republican Party takes over.  America is still recovering from the damage done by the Gingrich revolution of the mid-nineties and the more recent serial misadventures of the Bush years. If you want a repeat, sit on your hands, complain about the Dems, talk to each other on Twitter, laugh at the Daily Show, and watch Sarah Palin’s influence and power grow. 

Progressives, I have a game changer for you and it is immigration reform.  I invite you to get on board or at least hear me out as I make my case. 

As a political issue at this moment in time, immigration has three distinct advantages over most of the other issues I see: 1) It builds coalitions on the left; 2) It divides coalitions on the right; and 3) It mobilizes a key constituency of voters – Latinos and immigrants – who are decisive in the future of politics in America.   

For years, immigration reform has been seen as a wedge issue to be wielded by Republicans against Democrats, when in fact, it is an issue that works in exactly the opposite way.  Immigration reform could be the difference between an honorable tie in November -where Democrats hold onto their majority, don’t lose too many seats, and live to fight another day – or a serious defeat that wounds the Party and the policies progressives care about for years to come.  But in order to win, the Democrats must lean into the issue and be aggressive, and progressives have to help show them the way. 

Mobilizing Immigrant and Latino Voters

At a press conference on Monday, Janet Murguía, President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the nation’s oldest and largest Hispanic civil rights group, told reporters that for the Latino community, immigration reform is a matter of “Respect. That is why immigration reform -and how it is debated and too often maligned – is so important to us.”  
The nastiness of the immigration debate has come across to Latinos – rightly – as a discussion about whether they are welcome in this country, even for those who have been here for generations.  Latinos are literally being beaten to death as a result of the vitriol in this debate and when your community is under siege, you remember who helped and who stood on the sidelines. 

At the press conference at which Murguía spoke, America’s Voice released a study of Latino voters and the 2010 political map, The Power of the Latino Vote in the 2010 Elections (They Tipped Elections in 2008; Where Will They Be in 2010?).  The report crystallizes the growing power of this community: 

In the 2008 presidential election, approximately 10 million Latinos voted, a growth of about 2.5 million voters nationwide compared to 2004 and a nearly 4 million person increase since 2000. From 2000 to 2008, Latino voter registration grew 54% and turnout grew 64%…  

Texas and Florida, which have significant Latino populations going back generations, saw Latino voter turnout grow by 31% and 81% respectively between the 2000 and 2008 elections. However, as Latinos increased their presence in “new immigrant” states, Latino voter turnout between 2000 and 2008 exploded by 157% in South Carolina, 164% in Nevada, 250% in North Carolina, and 392% in Georgia. — The Power of the Latino Vote in the 2010 Elections (They Tipped Elections in 2008; Where Will They Be in 2010?) 

As the Miami Herald reported, 40 or more congressional races could tip one way or the other based on how – and whether – Latinos vote.  Murguía said of Latino voters “We are not firmly Democratic, and we have not been definitively pushed away by Republicans yet.”  

Latino voters are a diverse group but share strong bonds and common interests.  Like most voters, they care about jobs that pay a living wage, good schools and opportunity for their children, access to affordable health care, safe streets, and basic rights of liberty and social justice.  Like other working class Americans, many Latinos live in the neighborhoods that have the polluting power plant or the toxic dump.  Their kids are in the military and serving and dying in America’s wars. Name an issue on the progressive agenda and Latinos have a stake in it and progressives have a self-interest in connecting with them. 

Latino voters, especially naturalized immigrants, are also highly religious, more likely to live in families with children, more likely to work and shun public assistance programs, and have been known to respond positively to the GOP “family values”  agenda.  Right now, the biggest thing keeping these voters away from the Republicans are the Republican positions on immigration. 

The fact that they are not solidly in any political camp ought to light a fire under progressive groups, even if Democrats have been slow to see the light.  The Party seems to be thinking “What? Will they really vote for Republicans?” But ignoring the top priority of voters considered safely in their base is a bad habit for Democrats and not one they can afford to continue through 2010.  But beyond the obvious self-interest of immigrants and Latinos – and the smaller but still significant other immigrant and ethnic communities – immigration reform can mobilize other voters as well. 

Building Coalitions on the Left

Many analysts start and stop with how the immigration issue mobilizes Latino and immigrant voters.  It d oes.  These voters are a key reason to move forward on immigration reform legislation, but not the only one, from a political perspective.   

Labor unions, that have had a love-hate approach to immigrants and immigration over the decades, are in a unified and very constructive place on the immigration reform issue.  The AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions support moving legislation that gets millions of immigrants here into the system and legal.  Labor also supports a process for determining future immigration based on the actual needs of the domestic workforce.  This is a worker’s rights issue that puts working people on a more level playing field when it comes to standing up for better wages and working conditions across the economy.  And let’s face it, Employee Free Choice and health care reform have not gone the way the unions would have wanted and they need a good, pro-labor issue to mobilize their considerable troops this fall and immigration could help do that. 

Similarly, if you care about jobs and the economy, the middle class, and opportunity for working class families, you should be on board with immigration reform.  Immigration reform is not a fight over more or less immigration into our country; rather it is a fight over whether the immigrants who are coming and already here are welcomed, protected by legal rights, governed by our labor laws, taxed like everyone else, and integrated and assimilated into our communities the way immigrants always have been.  What ensures the rights of my neighbor protects my rights and that’s why the civil rights community, including the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights broadly support the pro-immigration reform agenda. So does the faith community driven by Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a broad range of Christian denominations and other faiths spanning the political spectrum.  The moral force behind immigration reform is strong. 

Immigration reform is an issue that brings business owners and entrepreneur to the table.  It resonates with younger voters and appeals to the basic social justice instincts of liberals.  And it reaches a broad centrist audience that wants their government to solve tough problems.  Americans want an immigration system where rules are established and people follow them, and comprehensive immigration reform is the only practical way to get from here to there.  
The progressive approach to immigration reform is “a uniter,” despite all the misconceptions that it is as “a divider” as an issue. 

Breaking Coalitions on the Right

The one place the immigration issue is a divider is on the right.  Nativists like Tom Tancredo and Joe Farah stand before the Tea Party convention and make liberals, the civil rights community, and progressives – and most Americans – wretch, but these guys make many Republicans even madder.  The National Review’s Rich Lowery used words like “embarrassment” and “cringe-inducing” to describe their remarks in Nashville.  Tom Tancredo, the former Republican Member of Congress ran for President in 2008 on an exclusively anti-immigration platform, dropped out before the Iowa caucuses.  The main reason was that his polling numbers and fundraising totals were only slightly better than mine were, and I was not a declared candidate.   

Polls by advocacy groups and independent media and research outfits have consistently shown strong support, among Republicans, Independents and Democrats, for a policy that provides some form of legal status for undocumented immigrants.  GOP voters oppose “amnesty,” but support a process that gets immigrants on-the-books, on tax rolls, and registered with the government.  The “no amnesty” caucus in the Republican Party is driving the rest of the GOP over an electoral cliff

In fact, some Republicans have already broken ranks with the GOP orthodoxy on immigration.  Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a key ally of John McCain’s on the campaign trail and in the fight for immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, recently laid down the gauntlet for pro-deportation Republicans.  He told Brian Goldsmith of The Atlantic that: 

“…when it comes to the illegal alien population, if the definition of amnesty is you got to deport twelve million people, or put twelve million people in jail, then we’ll never have a comprehensive solution, because that’s just not workable, it’s not practical.” (emphasis mine) 
Sarah Palin, the darling of the tea party set, has hedged her bets on immigration, striking a softer tone in her first appearance as a Fox News analyst with Glenn Beck in January.  Even uber-immigration hawk Lou Dobbs, is changing his tune

Progressives, Lead the Democrats to Immigration Water, Make Them Drink

If you’re a Democratic candidate this fall you’ll face one of two types of Republican challengers: 1) A Republican who embraces sensible immigration reform and gets severely mauled by the anti-immigration wing of his/her own Party; or 2) A Republican that embraces the anti-immigration wing of his/her Party and ends up facing the general public with an extreme immigration position that is indefensible because it is based on mass deportation or the fantasy that more than 10-12 million immigrants in the US illegally are (ever) leaving.  Beyond America’s Deep South, this is a fantastic scenario for Democrats. 

But Democrats need to keep the issue moving.  If they unite around legislation that keeps the issue – and the stark choice for voters – in focus, they can bludgeon hardliners on the issue.  In Massachusetts, Sen. Scott Brown received the endorsement of restrictionists that support mass expulsion and oppose legal immigration.  He did not pay a price for this association.  Among the many weaknesses of his opponent, Martha Coakley did not clearly articulate a vision for immigration reform and did not drive the issue.  Could she have won if she had leaned into the immigration issue?  There were too many deficits in her campaign for one issue to make the difference, but millions of voters who had only voted for Sen. Ted Kennedy in their lifetimes didn’t vote for her in sufficient numbers to hold his seat.  Many of them were immigrants and many more would have been repelled by the immigration positions of Brown’s associates if Coakley had bothered to lean into the issue.  At the very least, voters would have found their position silly and impractical.   

To paraphrase Rummy, we can’t  always fight for our nation ‘s future with the Democratic Party we want; we have to fight for the future of America with the Democratic Party we have.  Progressives can drive the process of leading Democrats to victory while strengthening and broadening the progressive coalition that will hold Democrats accountable.  Getting over the feeling among many progressives that immigration is someone else’s issue and someone else’s fight is a good way to start. 


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