In 1997, GOP messaging strategist Frank Luntz issued a warning: If Republicans failed to appeal to Hispanic voters, "they could be lost to us for a generation." And for awhile, his party seemed to listen. Toeing a moderate line on immigration became how a prospective Republican presidential candidate secured his party's nomination.
"The 2004 election was a classic example of a Republican candidate who got it and a Democratic candidate who didn't," says Frank Sharry of America's Voice Online, an advocacy organization that supports comprehensive immigration reform. "George W. Bush is running Spanish-language ads saying we share values, we believe in the American dream, and John Kerry is standing up in front of English-speaking Hispanic activists in swing states and saying, 'I'm for affirmative action.'" Bush went on to win 44 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Despite Bush's support for an immigration-reform bill, the Republican Congress took it off the table in advance of the 2006 midterms. In 2007, immigrant-rights activists held their noses and reluctantly agreed to support a more conservative reform bill negotiated by Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, but it collapsed in the face of an internal revolt from the GOP's base. The Bush-directed Republican effort at self-preservation had failed. In the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain, who only two years earlier had authored a moderate immigration-reform bill with his friend Ted Kennedy, captured little more than one-third of the Hispanic vote. This year he filmed a cartoonish campaign ad in which he grumbled, "Complete the dang fence."
Today the pro-immigration-reform faction of the GOP is in full retreat. Republican senators spent the confirmation hearings of the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice evaluating whether or not she was racist against white people. The epithet "anchor baby" has become increasingly common among the conservative grass roots, and even Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- once the Democrats' prospective partner on immigration reform -- has floated the idea of amending the Constitution to outlaw birthright citizenship. In the House, Republican anti-immigrant animus is even more extreme. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas has warned of "terror babies" who will grow up to become suicide bombers and Rep. Steve King of Iowa has described immigration as a "slow-motion holocaust." This year, after Arizona passed a law that forces local law-enforcement officials to check the immigration status of anyone they stop, Republican-dominated legislatures in other states rushed to copy it.
With the Hispanic-friendly conservatism of the Bush family no longer dominating the Republican Party, Democrats felt more confident than ever in counting Hispanic voters as a permanent part of their base. The 2008 election looked to Democrats like the fulfillment of John Judis and Ruy Teixeira's demographic prophecy: A younger, more diverse electorate would become increasingly alienated by the pale, aging, and nativist-dominated Republican Party. "A new progressive America is on the rise," Teixeira wrote in 2009. Nonwhites made up 48 percent of newborns in 2008, and this past March, The New York Times predicted that the number of nonwhite children being born could surpass white births as soon as this year. As a Nixon official, Pat Buchanan once calculated that by playing the white working class against minorities, the Republican Party would end up with the "larger half" of the country. In a 21st-century majority-minority America, Democrats anticipated having the larger half.
Now, that long-term demographic alignment is at risk. Having won the presidency -- and 67 percent of the Hispanic vote -- in part on the promise of immigration reform, Barack Obama has yet to put his feet on the starting blocks. In the meantime, his administration has doubled down on aggressive enforcement policies, ramping up border security and increasing deportations. Democrats may score some short-term political points with smaller-scale immigration bills like the DREAM Act, which would grant a path to citizenship to some children of undocumented immigrants, but passing comprehensive reform is the only way to secure the kind of generational realignment they are seeking.
Republican obstructionism and Democratic anxiety have brought large-scale reform efforts to a complete standstill. But the growing influence of the Hispanic vote, the brokenness of the current system, and the demands of business interests all suggest it's a matter of when -- not if -- Congress passes a reform bill that includes some form of amnesty. When it does, Republicans' history of hostility to Hispanics won't turn these voters into reliable Democrats any more than the express racism of the old Democratic Party prevented blacks from eventually becoming part of the party's base. If reform is eventually enacted by a Republican president or congress, it's possible that Hispanics might choose to throw in their lot with a party that can get results instead of one that merely talks a good game.
There will be some variables -- the number of visas for low-skilled workers, the size of a potential guest-worker program, the path to citizenship for America's undocumented -- but at this point the question isn't whether immigration reform will happen. Rather, the question is, when it does, which party will get the credit and which will take the fall?
There are already at least 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and as long as work pays more here than it does in Mexico, that number will only grow. The extremely low number of employment-based green cards and visas for low-skilled workers relative to the demand for their labor makes crossing the border undocumented a rational choice. "When the [visa] numbers can't respond to the economic flow of supply and demand, you get this buildup of people coming in illegally because the jobs are there, and the incentive is enough that they're willing to take the risk," says Mary Giovagnoli of the Immigration Policy Center. The recession merely cut the flow of illegal immigrants to 300,000 a year, down from an average of 850,000 when times were better. And despite the fact that migration had decreased, migrant deaths along the border actually rose as it became more difficult to cross.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Chief John Morton claims the government has the means to deport around 400,000 people a year. Even if ICE somehow managed to bring illegal immigration to a complete halt, it would still take nearly three decades to remove everyone who is here illegally. But you don't fix the problems associated with illegal immigration by engaging in a brutal, quixotic quest to send everyone home. You fix them by creating a more flexible system where the demands of the labor market can be met through more licit means and workers aren't exploited and driven underground. Tamar Jacoby, a former Manhattan Institute fellow who is now president of ImmigrationWorksUSA, sums up the choice America faces: "Do we want to be the kind of country that has 11 million people living on the margins of society outside the rule of law and outside our body politic?"
Of course, you won't hear this rational assessment on cable news or from politicians of either party. "This issue is so misunderstood by the public that it's the megaphone of the president that has to explain it," Sharry says. The problem is that Obama hasn't really tried -- and Republicans have been happy to amplify the misperceptions. Rather than work toward comprehensive immigration reform that takes into account the economic realities of the labor market, Republicans and Democrats have competed with each other over who's the bigger border hawk. In August, as Congress debated a $600 million bill sending more agents and unmanned aerial drones to the border, Sen. Chuck Schumer called the legislation "a test of people's seriousness when it comes to the border." The bill passed overwhelmingly.
There's a reason for both parties' fixation on securing the border: It's very popular. In a May Gallup survey, 89 percent of Americans deemed border security "moderately" to "extremely" important. In 1993, President Bill Clinton shifted toward more aggressive border enforcement in order to prevent Republicans from siphoning off working-class white voters opposed to illegal immigration. Spending on border-security initiatives with names like Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Hold the Line, and Operation Safeguard went from $750 million in 1993 to $3.8 billion a decade later -- with little effect on migration. Between 1990 and 2007, the population of undocumented immigrants more than tripled from 3.5 million to a high of 12 million.
"Immigration is a Rubik's Cube really; in order to solve the puzzle, you can't just be focused on one side of it," Giovagnoli says. "What we've done is focus exclusively on one side of the puzzle, the interior-border-enforcement side of things."
Enforcement-only advocates have yet to learn the key lesson of the drug war: You can't eliminate a market by making it more illegal; you can only make it more secretive, more dangerous, and more lucrative for those without scruples. Border enforcement is good business for people who make their living by smuggling others across it. (Smugglers increased their average fee from $490 in 1995 to $2,000 in 2004 -- a testament to both the elevated risk of crossing and the amount of business they're doing.) In 2007 political scientists Wayne Cornelius and Idean Salehyan conducted interviews in Mexican communities along the border and found that the U.S.' border-control efforts were "unlikely to create an effective deterrent to unauthorized migration."
Pouring money into border security doesn't stop illegal immigration, which only leads to more demand for border security. The conditions for reforming the immigration system in a manner that allows the government more control and oversight over the migrant labor force are thus never reached. This is the enforcement paradox. John McCain once understood it as well as anyone. He told his Senate colleagues in 2006, "As long as there is a need for workers in the United States, and people are willing to cross the desert to make a better life for their families, our border will never be secure."
Yet, perhaps because of strong popular support for enforcement, politicians cling to the misguided notion that these policies are a stepping stone to real reform. "I think what we've seen is that the border-security part had to come first," says Doug Holtz-Eakin, who was an adviser to McCain during his presidential campaign. "Having heard the public on that, everyone's working on that piece with everything else on the back burner."
The Obama administration finds itself trapped. Hoping to create the political conditions for reform, it has amassed a record of strict enforcement, deporting more immigrants in 2009 than at any other time in the nation's history, even as migration decreased. Obama has extended two Bush-era enforcement programs: Secure Communities, which makes it mandatory for police to forward the identifying information of anyone they arrest to ICE and every county along the Southwest border, and Operation Streamline, which allows judges to engage in "mass sentencing" of immigrants caught crossing the border illegally. The administration has thrown drones and more security personnel at the border. It has made the E-Verify system, used to determine potential employees' immigration status, mandatory for all companies seeking federal contracts. Bush-era worksite raids have been replaced by "silent raids," in which ICE forces employers to fire workers whose Social Security number doesn't match up with a federal database.
Yet the Obama administration has made no corresponding push for comprehensive immigration reform. "They made a calculation early on that you stress enforcement first in order to create acceptance of a broader legalization program," says Giovagnoli. "No matter how good you get at that one [piece], if you're not focused on the other pieces, you're going to have a system that is out of whack."
The faltering economy further complicates the politics of this issue, creating a sense among American citizens that there aren't enough jobs to go around. "There is an understanding right now [that] given the circumstances -- the economic meltdown the president inherited -- Latinos are willing to give [Obama] a little bit of leeway," says Fernand Amandi, of the polling firm Bendixen and Associates, which specializes in Hispanic public opinion. But, "there's also an expectation that he will tackle this issue."
Speaking at a gala held by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in September, the president blamed GOP obstructionism for the lack of progress. "Don't forget who is standing with you," Obama said, "and who is standing against you." But his administration has struggled to deliver even small-ticket items, like the DREAM Act, that once boasted bipartisan support. In August, the coverage of the Obama administration in the Spanish-language media took a noticeable turn -- with prominent media figures like Univision newscaster Jorge Ramos warning that the president was developing a "serious credibility problem" with Hispanics.
A July poll found that more than a quarter of Hispanic voters supporting comprehensive immigration reform would stay home if no bill were passed this year. Amandi warns, "If by the time the president comes up for re-election in 2012, and there has been nothing done, and no bill passed, and no significant effort, then I think there will be consequences."
In August, embattled Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spoke to an audience of Hispanic supporters in Nevada. "I don't know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican, OK," he said smugly. "Do I need to say more?"
That, in a nutshell, is his party's strategy for capturing the Hispanic vote. In the absence of tangible accomplishments, Democrats are counting on Republican bigotry to drive Hispanic voters permanently into the arms of the Democratic Party.
There has been some disagreement among Democrats about whether it's worth pursuing piecemeal legislation that would make things better for thousands of people but could siphon energy from efforts to pass a comprehensive reform bill. After two years of Republican obstruction, those concerns are being set aside. "We may see more of what we're seeing now with the DREAM Act -- smaller pieces of legislation that are politically palatable to a broad section of Congress," says Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, a strong supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. Yet in September, Senate Republicans who had previously supported the DREAM Act blocked it from coming up for a vote. "If Democrats keep trying to pass what they can, and Republicans continue their venomous rhetoric and their intent to filibuster everything, I think voters will see who's really doing nothing on immigration."
Indeed, Democrats are quick to place the blame on Republicans. "Many members of the Congress who voted 'no' last time on immigration reform said they needed to see more enforcement and more security first; we have met every benchmark set in those debates," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, explaining to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in September why there had been little progress on reform. "The request I keep making is quit moving the goalposts."
But many immigration-reform advocates on both the right and the left counter that Democrats are the ones who have failed to deliver. "A lot of Republicans took enormous political heat and cost; they're looking for Democrats to show something comparable before they take the heat again," Holtz-Eakin says. "All Congresses are essentially partisan; it's especially partisan now, and the only person who can reach across that is the president. ... What [the administration] has done has been essentially reactive to criticism from others."
Democrats began talking up reform in late September, but the chances of passing legislation before 2012 seem remote. The administration hasn't shown much appetite for fights it knows it's going to lose. Republicans are gambling on the possibility that the Democrats reached the ceiling of their share of the Hispanic vote in 2008 -- and that the current majority party is too fearful of alienating working-class whites to make a serious push for comprehensive immigration reform. "A 'win' for Democrats yields a lot of pissed-off, blue-collar Dems from states in which Obama needs to perform during the 2012 election," says one prominent Republican consultant. "An awful lot of Democratic, blue-collar guys can and will vote Republican if Obama 'opens the border' or 'issues an amnesty.'"
Republicans are also relying on cultural differences between Hispanic immigrant groups to keep them competitive -- Puerto Ricans vote quite differently than Cuban Americans. By the end of 2009, immigration had vaulted to the second-highest concern among Hispanics -- likely because the immigration debate is largely seen as a proxy for how Hispanics as a whole, not just undocumented immigrants, are treated. Those cultural differences may mean less over time as rising nativism pushes a shared struggle with racial discrimination to the forefront of the Hispanic experience. The truth is that, like African Americans, Hispanics often come from conservative cultural backgrounds and would be a natural constituency for Republicans -- if the party decides to make a clean break with nativism.
The administration's strategy of ramping up enforcement, giving speeches in favor of immigration reform but not pressing Congress to act, makes a perverse kind of sense. In the short term, it stems potential anger from whites while reassuring Hispanics that the president still intends to act -- someday. But most Democrats fail to acknowledge how the current detente benefits their opponents as well. For Republicans, preventing the passage of reform legislation not only erodes trust between Hispanics and Democrats; it pushes their own demographic problems further down the road. Even assuming the worst-case scenario for Republicans -- that comprehensive immigration reform with some kind of amnesty is inevitable and that Hispanics will end up in the Democratic column no matter what -- the Republican choice is simple: The country can have 11 million more Democratic-leaning voters tomorrow, or it can have them five, 10, 15, or 20 years from now. There's a reason Rush Limbaugh called the 2007 immigration-reform bill the "Comprehensive Destroy the Republican Party Act of 2007."
Despite the cacophony of anti-immigrant sentiment, some Republicans seem to understand the bigger picture. Former Bush adviser Karl Rove, who once envisioned Hispanics as part of his "permanent Republican majority," went on Fox News and attacked Obama's commitment to immigration reform. Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, a potential 2012 presidential contender, told the conservative magazine Human Events, "We're not going to take 10 or 12 or 14 million people and put them in jail and deport them. ... Some people need to quit acting like we are, and let's talk about real solutions."
The stakes will only continue to rise. The Hispanic vote, which will double by 2050, figures heavily in the prophecies of each party's top political strategists. When the time for opposition is past and the time for governing has come, Republicans who have played along with right-wing nativism for short-term political gain may take another shot at Rove's dream. There's certainly a historical precedent for this sort of sea change: When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he cemented a decades-long realignment of black voters toward the onetime party of the Ku Klux Klan. There are powerful forces in the Republican Party still devoted to immigration reform -- evangelicals, business interests -- and they lose nothing by preventing a Democratic administration from making progress on this issue.
"The Republican Party cannot win over the long term without some share of the Latino vote; it's just not mathematically possible," says Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change. "Immigration reform will definitely happen -- the only question is what the nature of the reform will be."
In the meantime, there are very human consequences of failing to act. "We're deporting 400,000 people a year, and we're destroying tens of thousands of families every month," Sharry says. "We're talking about a population where two-thirds of the families have been here 10 years or more. They're here." The question of how we deal with them being here -- whether we choose to welcome those newcomers who can enrich our society or whether we treat them all like criminals -- will determine what kind of nation America is. And which party will lead it.