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Why immigration reform is inevitable

December 5, 2013 -  By

The “small window that’s closing fast” for immigration reform to happen before the end of the year slammed shut in November, at least for the time being.

It was clear that the window had been “nailed shut,” as American Nursery & Landscape Association’s Craig Regelbrugge put it, when finger-pointing began in mid-November over why immigration reform failed – not only between Democrats and Republicans, but also within Democratic and Republican circles.

While the time for immigration reform may not be this year, or even next, the forces driving immigration reform in Congress are inexorable. It’s just a matter of when those forces will reach a tipping point.

Why is immigration reform inevitable? Several reasons.

1. Demographics

The Hispanic population in the U.S. is growing, both in raw numbers and proportionally. (The U.S. Census Bureau uses the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” interchangeably, as does the Pew Hispanic Research Center, to describe people who claim ancestry from a Spanish-speaking country. In this article, Hispanic is used exclusively for clarity.)

According to the Census Bureau, the Hispanic population more than tripled from 15 million to 52 million between 1980 and 2011.

The proportion of the Hispanic population rose from 6.4 percent to 16.7 percent of the U.S. population during the same period. By 2050, the Census Bureau projects that 30 percent of the U.S. population will be of Hispanic ancestry.

Further, while the largest numbers of Hispanics are in the West and Florida, all regions of the country are seeing increases in Hispanic populations. Hispanics are gaining political power in the fastest growing, most populous parts of the country.

The Pew Hispanic Research Center (Pew) conducted a survey in 2012 and found that 70 percent of Hispanic Americans who were registered voters identified themselves as Democrats or leaned toward the Democratic Party, while 22 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Republicans or leaned toward the Republican Party.

While you can’t automatically assume that all Hispanics support immigration reform, a July 2013 survey of Hispanic adults by Pew, found that 71 percent felt undocumented immigrants have either a positive or no effect on the Hispanic community. Only 21 percent felt that undocumented immigrants have a negative effect on the Hispanic community.

These demographic changes and political implications are already having an effect on Congress. The comprehensive immigration bill (S. 744), crafted by a bipartisan group of Senators and passed in June, was the result of the pressure felt by some Senate Republicans to begin to appeal to the growing Hispanic electorate.

In the House, three Republicans in heavily Hispanic districts have signed on as cosponsors to an immigration reform bill drafted by Democrats that parallels the Senate bill. There will be a slow, but steady, defection of other Republicans as time goes on.

When it comes to presidential politics, the pressure on Republican candidates for 2016 will be even greater. In the 2012 presidential election, Hispanics voted for President Obama over Mitt Romney by a margin of 71 percent to 27 percent, according an analysis of exit polls by Pew.

The large Hispanic majority for Obama was a key part of his electoral victory.

To be successful, a Republican presidential candidate in the 2016 general election will need to find a way to neutralize the 44 percent advantage that President Obama enjoyed among Hispanic voters in 2012.

These demographic trends and the tendency of the Hispanic population to vote Democratic will continue to put pressure on Republicans to become more open to immigration reform as they attempt to broaden their appeal to the Hispanic voter.

2. Public opinion

Public opinion is moving steadily toward comprehensive immigration reform. A Pew/USA TODAY survey of U.S. adults found that 71 percent percent thought undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. should be allowed to stay if they meet certain requirements, such as paying fines and learning English.

Moreover, 75 percent of those surveyed felt that undocumented immigrants are hard workers and should be allowed to stay in the U.S. and improve their lives. A similar percentage felt that if undocumented immigrants could stay in the U.S. it would strengthen the economy.

A slightly higher percentage, 77 percent, thought that deporting all undocumented immigrants was unrealistic.

A November 2013 survey of voters in 20 Republican-held Congressional districts by Basswood Research found results similar to Pew. The survey was conducted for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Basswood found that 71 percent of likely voters in these districts supported immigration reform that included an earned pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The breakdown of voter party preference in these districts fell at 39 percent Republican, 35 percent Democratic and 23 percent Independent.

So, there is broad public support for the key elements of comprehensive immigration reform, even in majority Republican Congressional districts.

3. Activism of the non-agriculture business community

Businesses are finding labor shortages at both ends of the workforce spectrum. Not only is agriculture finding it necessary to hire immigrant labor for field work, but technology firms, like Facebook and Google, are experiencing talent shortages for tech workers as well.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has become a spokesman for technology firms, and now spends time in Washington lobbying for immigration reform. Zuckerberg calls immigration reform the “’biggest civil rights issue of our time.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was not fully engaged in the failed immigration reform effort under the Bush administration in 2007, but it has thrown substantial resources at the current immigration reform effort. The U.S. Chamber was a key force in helping to craft the comprehensive reform bill passed by the Senate in June.

The tipping point and the 2016 presidential race

With the forces for immigration reform aligned and growing stronger, when will it happen?

I think much depends on the current ideological struggle within the Republican Party. To some extent, this struggle is the party’s own making.

Over the past two decennial censuses, majority Republican state houses have managed to create a core group of “bomb proof” conservative Republican Congressional districts by changing the district boundaries, known as “gerrymandering.”

In these districts, incumbent Republicans fear most a primary challenge from their right, since whoever wins the Republican primary will typically win over any Democrat in the general election. This makes these Republican members of Congress reluctant to take on any issue that could be used against them by a more conservative fellow Republican in a primary. Immigration reform is one of those issues for conservative Republicans.

This group of conservative Republican members of Congress, sometimes referred to as the “Tea Party Caucus,” has managed to hamstring movement of immigration reform bills in the House.

With 2014 being an election year and the fear of a primary challenge by many Republican members of the House, it seems unlikely that immigration reform will happen in 2014. I give it a 10 percent chance.

More interesting is what will happen as the 2016 presidential election rolls around. Several of the likely Republican candidates have staked out early positions that seemed to be pro-immigration reform: Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Chris Christie. But they all have walked-back or modified their positions to be less definitive due to pressure from the more conservative elements in the party.

The question is whether Republican presidential candidates will be able to run to the right in the Republican primary, then shift to a more moderate position in the general election while garnering the Hispanic vote.

In 2012, Mitt Romney was forced to the right on immigration reform during the primary, causing him to make several statements that alienated Hispanic voters. He then found it difficult to move back to a more moderate position in the general election. Romney lost the Hispanic vote by 44 percentage points.

Will 2016 Republican presidential candidates learn from Romney’s experience and stake out a more moderate stance on immigration reform through the 2016 primary battle? If so, it could give Republican members of Congress the cover they would need to vote for immigration reform.

The period 2015-2016 could be the best shot at immigration reform in the next five years. For one, if immigration reform passes, it takes the issue off the table as a presidential election year issue for the Republicans and gives them a cornerstone around which to build a true appeal to Hispanic voters.

For that reason, I give an immigration reform bill a 60 percent chance of passing during the 2015-2016 session of Congress, providing the Democrats hold the Senate in 2014. If the Democrats don’t hold the Senate in 2014, all bets are off.

Nonetheless, the forces for immigration reform will continue to build. We are approaching a tipping point, and when that time comes, things will move quickly. It may be next year, or as long off as 2017, but the time for immigration reform will come certainly within the next five years.

Our job is to keep the pressure on and make sure that whatever legislation finally passes solves the problem.

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About the Author:

Gregg Robertson, Landscape Management's government relations blogger, is a government relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of Conewago Ventures. From 2002 until May 2013 he served as president of PLNA. Reach him at gregg.robertson@conewagoventures.com.

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