It’s no small irony that elections, the hallmark of a free and democratic society, tend to bring out the worst in our political system. In a cycle where resurgent birthers and dogs strapped to car roofs garner the lion’s share of media attention, a more cyclical scandal goes undetected: the promise of immigration reform.
Presidential politics are all about chopping up the electorate in the race to 270 electoral votes. In general, an aspiring president or sitting president seeking another term must separate out “key demographics” and fine-tune messages that woo each according to its own priorities. A few weeks ago, Rush Limbaugh’s mouth settled the focus on women: which candidate was more pro-woman? Who was conspiring to trample women’s rights? Likewise, prodded (or preempted, as it were) by Vice President Joe Biden, Obama recently came out in support of another demographic that may shore up his left flank, making presidential history by endorsing same-sex marriage on national television. Republicans certainly saw an opening with the AARP crowd, and the culture war was on.
New census data revealing that less than half of all children born today are white has highlighted another demographic: Hispanics. The importance of the Hispanic vote is held as commonsense wisdom, and so talk of reforming the country’s immigration rules becomes a rite of passage for any presidential candidate worth his salt.
The conventional wisdom suggests that Obama has the Hispanic vote all but locked up, since the last Republican who knew how to successfully court Latinos was George W. Bush (an odd accolade for a man whose legacy is peppered with failure). After all, Obama fought for passage of the DREAM Act that would have granted legal status to children of illegal immigrants who went to college or served in the military. Take another look though, and the picture grows more complicated. First, there’s the fact that the Obama administration has deported more illegal immigrants than any administration in history. Furthermore, as Linda Chavez, chairwoman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, points out, President Obama “has done almost nothing to advance immigration reform, never making it a top legislative priority or using any political capital even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.”1
Chavez’s suggestion that Romney endorse the DREAM Act is nothing short of a pipe dream, given Romney’s obsession with turning off magnets and securing the border. Moreover, though Newt Gingrich has long ago dropped out of the race and offered his tepid support, Romney likely doesn’t want to breathe new life into his “Massachusetts Moderate” label or reinforce the perception that he’s a pandering flip-flopper. Still, Chavez inadvertently illustrates the precise problem: at some point, immigration reform went from being a legitimate cause to a mere talking point to be plucked out of the scrap heap every four years and deployed in an attempt to slice off some of the Hispanic electorate.
To make things more confusing, Romney has framed elements of immigration reform in an economic light and taken some ownership of the issue from Obama (or at least attempted to). Romney’s campaign website has an entire section dedicated to immigration; after some modest poking around on Obama’s page, the only reference I could find to immigration was in a lone link at the bottom of his Education issues page. That page? A 32-word blurb voicing support for DREAM Act proposals and “other common-sense immigration reforms.”2 Is this the full-throated support we should expect from the de facto “immigration candidate?”
The seasoned cynic would, at this juncture, infer that immigration’s prominence on Romney’s website is simply red meat for the xenophobic element of the GOP, replete with talk of barbed-wire fences and “self-deportation.” I’m not so sure, though there are the requisite national security passages and mention of “terrorists” sneaking across the border. Still, Romney’s page points out that “immigrants start 16 percent of our top-performing, high-technology companies, hold the position of CEO or lead engineer in 25 percent of high-tech firms, and produce over 25 percent of all patent applications filed from the United States.”3 He identifies the very issue I personally witness every day, stating, “The system requires us to send away the great majority of the over 300,000 foreign students who are earning advanced degrees at U.S. universities” before concluding, “President Obama has done nothing to improve our visa system.” If we can forgive a little election-year hyperbole, it’s obvious that he’s right. Moreover, just as Obama has linked education and immigration, Romney has woven it into a broader discussion on the economy, and is doing a better job of it than the President.
It’s difficult to say what all this means. Perhaps Romney, not Obama, is the candidate whom voters can count on to finally deliver immigration reform. Perhaps Obama, confident of his support in the Hispanic community, has simply set his priorities elsewhere, but is still the movement's true(r) friend. The final possibility is the bleakest: immigration reform is nothing more than a cheap trick, luring citizens who prioritize this issue into a labyrinth of empty promises and election-year smoke and mirrors. The demographic sea change long promised is now officially underway, but our short-sighted electoral cycle still can't see past November.