President Obama has called it the “biggest failure of [his] first term.” Now, having once again been elected with a sizable majority of the Latino vote and with key Republicans seemingly on board, the administration has begun pressuring Congress to take up immigration reform. The president has said he plans to introduce an immigration-reform proposal shortly after his inauguration, and Senators Lindsay Graham and Chuck Schumer, who led the failed effort for immigration reform in 2009, have “resumed talks.”
In previous legislative battles over immigration going back to George W. Bush’s second term, the key sticking point has been what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented workers currently in the country. Another point of contention is whether to pass a “comprehensive” bill—one that addresses a broad range of problems with the immigration system including enforcement, the visa system for high-skilled workers, family-unification policies, the status of children brought to the U.S. illegally, and the administration of future migration—or whether it is better to reform the immigration system piecemeal.
The Prospect talked with Laura Vazquez and Clarissa Martinez-de-Castro at the National Council of La Raza—the country’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization—about what Latino voters expect from the president in exchange for their support, what to expect in the upcoming battle over immigration reform, and what about our immigration system most needs fixing.
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During Obama’s first term, Lindsay Graham and Chuck Schumer offered a “blueprint” for immigration reform that featured both a path to citizenship for the undocumented and significant increases in law enforcement. Is increased enforcement a necessary tradeoff for achieving a path to citizenship for the undocumented?
Laura Vazquez: I think that we’re in a different place than we were when the Graham-Schumer blueprint was first introduced. One, immigration enforcement in this country has increased to historic levels in the last few years, both at the border and throughout the country. A lot of the enforcement provisions in previous immigration bills going back to 2006-2007—including in the Graham-Schumer blueprint—have been met. Secretary Napolitano has herself testified repeatedly that the border has never been more secure. In light of the resources that have been put toward enforcement, we need to look to some new ideas on how to craft a bill.
What are the lessons legislators and politicians should take from the way Latinos voted in 2012?
Laura: Post-election, our community has made it very clear that immigration is an issue we look at closely; it is the prism through which we view candidates. So if politicians want to talk to us about their plans for small-business growth and economic growth more generally, our community first wants to know where they stand on immigration, and when we talk about this issue, we’re talking about what are we going to do with the 11 million people who are here without status. That I think needs to be front and center.
I went back and did a Google news search of stories after the 2008 election and a lot of the headlines were the same: “The sleeping giant of the Hispanic community has awakened.” But despite the proclamations, immigration reform went nowhere during Obama’s first term. How is the political moment now is different than it was then?
Clarissa Martínez-De-Castro: Enlightened self-interest is a beautiful thing, and I think the threads of self-interest are aligning in a better way than before. We’ve been telling Republicans for quite some time, probably longer than four years, that this was an issue they needed to watch. The picture we were painting about the changing electorate and their need to court Latinos was something some of them understood intellectually and others worked on, but it finally sunk in. Really sunk in. In a way, that’s unavoidable because perhaps 2012 was the last time you could have gotten to the finish line by going for broke betting on the white electorate.
There are more reasons things are different. In 2007, which was the last time there was a real effort to try to get an immigration bill done, many voices in the business community said their skin just wasn’t in the game. They weren’t feeling the pain like affected immigrant communities. Now, it is undeniable that agriculture and high tech are feeling the pain. As folks are looking at the possibility of an economic recovery, they’re asking, “What happens if this thing starts booming back and this is not fixed and we can’t get the workers we need?” In addition, faith and religious communities—including members of conservative evangelical groups—have spoken up in support of reform. There’s been more vocal voices from [law] enforcement. It’s the convergence of all those threads that is the potential game-changer.
In 2009-2010, immigrants-rights groups pushed for an omnibus immigration bill. When it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, they reluctantly scaled back their ambitions and pushed for passage of the DREAM Act, which they thought would be more politically feasible. I’ve spoken with some people who are afraid of going too big and getting nothing as opposed to enacting piecemeal reforms. Do you have an opinion on that?
Clarissa: If you look at it in terms of votes, DREAM has not necessarily gotten more votes than comprehensive. In 2007, the last comprehensive bill, we were one vote short of 60. As we saw in 2010, action from the anti-immigrant groups was just as fierce for DREAM as it was for comprehensive. The other thing to note is that DREAM is part of comprehensive and so if there is an environment that is propitious for comprehensive, it’s not to the exclusion of DREAM.
Right now I think we would be very confident in saying that the broad immigration coalition is looking at the work that was done in 2012 as building a platform for the biggest possible solution. If it seems there really is no possibility for it, we still have to take stock of whether there is a possibility for passing the legislation piecemeal and whether you even bother breaking up the pieces if the votes are not there.
There has been a lot of talk about the immigration system as it relates to highly trained workers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). How does this figure into the debate?
Laura: The current proposal would eliminate the diversity Visa and reallocate those Visas for people who graduate with STEM degrees. Congress tried to pass it under suspension in September right before they went out for recess and it’s going to come up again this week.
What’s the rationale for allocating those spots differently? We’d rather have STEM people than diverse people?
Clarissa: The pool of people for the lottery visa is very diffuse community. If you’re going to try to pick a weak opponent and try to make a run for their goods, this would be a good target. But what the proposal shows is that there’s a real need out there for a broad solution. Providing more Visas for people in STEM fields has largely been non-controversial, but that hasn’t been able to get through because I think a lot of the folks whose votes are needed think that it’s better to approach this as an overall package. That way, you keep all the interested parties together so they can throw down together. As opposed to saying, “I got mine. You fend for yourself.” To me, the telling part about the fact that they’re trying to make rumblings about Visas for STEM workers right now is it really highlights the need to fix the system as a whole. If you just keep rearranging the pieces of something that is not working, it’s not really going to solve any problems.
They say we did amnesty in the '80s and it didn’t fix the immigration system. How would the legislation being proposed now ensure that 20 years down the line we wouldn’t have a similar situation?
Clarissa: The legalization under Reagan, which he called “amnesty,” did not fix the future flow issue. The program only addressed the folks who were in the country already, which resulted in having an unregulated system of migration. What you’re dealing with right now is actually the result of that failure.
Now, what you’re basically looking at is how to restore the rule of law and in order to do that, you need to both figure out what the rigorous path to legality is for people who are here as well as what mechanisms should be put in place to discourage undocumented migration. They’re two sides to the same coin. You don’t restore the rule of law by ignoring the population that is here undocumented. If you don’t have a future flow system that works to meet the needs of the economy, then employers and workers meet each other outside the legal channels. Family members, same thing. If you’re married and you cannot reunite with your spouse or children for three or ten years, what are you going to do? Wait ten years? No. You’re going to figure out how to do it. Those things got kicked down the road last time around and we can’t afford to do that now.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the Latino community’s political influence in general. My observation about this has been that whenever people in the media talk about the Latino community it’s as one, undifferentiated mass. You even see hints of that in “the sleeping giant” metaphor. What is the “Latino community” and what are its interests?
Clarissa: We often try to force ourselves into an “either-or” situation: Latinos are either all the same or they don’t care about any of the same things. Latinos care only about immigration or Latino voters actually don’t care about immigration because they’re citizens. The truth is more complicated than that. Latinos are a heterogeneous community, but whether because of where people find themselves or because of where they came from, there’s still a certain level of affinity or connection on a broad set of issues. Support for government investments in education, in access to health care, in jobs and the economy—those issues have tended to be at the top of the priority agenda. This has led some people to say, “See, they don’t care about immigration.”
But where immigration has come into play is that, when it is part of the political debate, it really does touch people because it normally takes a negative turn. Over the course of 2008 and with the intensifying toxicity of the immigration debate, I think for many Latinos it became increasingly apparent that the differentiation many politicians were using—“We don’t mean Latinos; we mean immigrants,” or “We don’t mean legal immigrants; we mean those illegal immigrants.”—it’s a fake differentiation. That’s why people started responding to it more intensely and you see a defection from supporting Republicans starting in 2006, intensifying in 2010 after Arizona comes out with the racial profiling bill.
What about this statement that you often hear of Latinos are a natural constituency for the right because they’re conservative on certain social issues. Things like marriage.
Laura: We did some joint work on LGBT issues and I think that the Latino community has made strides, just like the rest of the country. Support for gay marriage is growing. I’m not sure if I’ve seen the latest numbers on abortion. But those are not going to be the top-of-mind issues. I think, generally speaking, we may be turning a corner on what had been the traditional cultural-war wedge issues.
In what ways have you seen the parties change in response to the increasing influence of the Latino electorate?
Clarissa: Everybody talks about the Latino community as a “sleeping giant,” but there really is no magic formula to secure their support. Candidates need to take positions on the issues that matter to a community and build meaningful outreach. Harry Reid is a good example. In 2010, there was a pretty stark contrast between Reid and his opponent Sharon Angle. He didn’t need to go out there and tell people there was a contrast between them. People knew. Some candidates don’t even go as far as that. They’re like, ‘They’ll know the other guys are bad and I don’t need to say anything.” But Reid was out there not only restating his positions, but he also had a campaign reaching out to the Latino community.
The mistake sometimes has been is this person is so bad I don't need to do anything and there's a lot of cases like that and then the candidates turn around and say: Latinos, the sleeping giant, they didn't wake up. It's like, OK, you did not campaign in that community. You did not reach out to that community. You just expected them to vote for you, and why would they?
Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.