How the Politics Could Shift for Immigration Reform

by Fawn Johnson, National Journal

For meaningful reform to happen, public opinion will have to radically change. That isn’t impossible.

cdn-media.nationaljournal.comPresident Obama wants the public to understand “why we’re doing this” when he takes whatever executive actions he is planning to ease deportations for at least some of the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country.

But the problem isn’t that the public doesn’t understand. The problem is that the public is wildly divided. Twenty to 25 percent of the voting public is strongly situated on each side of reform, according to America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry, a longtime immigration-reform activist.

That means that nothing the president—or anyone, really—says will change Americans’ minds, or make them “understand.” Sharry has studied the polling about who is swayable on immigration for a long time, and he says opinions have hardened. Ten years ago, those figures were closer to 15 percent on either side.

For any meaningful policy shift to occur on immigration, public-opinion divisions have to move dramatically. Nothing the president does will accomplish that. But there are still several things that could. If new champions of overhauling the immigration system emerge in the media and particularly in conservative community and religious groups, the voting public and its elected officials might be more comfortable discussing reform. There also has to be a plausible plan for them to support, one that answers conservatives’ concerns about stopping illegal immigration as well as finding ways to handle the current undocumented population.

That’s a tall order, but not impossible.

In Congress, Republicans need to have an incentive to consider an immigration overhaul. Immigration-reform activists suggest that the 2016 presidential election is a good one. Democrats need to have an incentive to accept Republican demands. If some type of legalization for unauthorized immigrants is on the table, and it looks like the best deal they’ll get, chances are they’ll play ball.

Pro-immigration-reform conservatives say a Republican Senate might best foster that type of negotiation. If that happens, Republican leaders who claim they want to act wouldn’t have a Democratic Senate to blame. But Republican elected officials are notoriously difficult to pin down on immigration, and even total control of Congress might not be enough to make them form a consensus that could pass muster with Democrats or the White House.

One thing is for sure: Doing anything at all on immigration will make some people incredibly angry. Accepting that fact will be the first required step before any legislating happens. “This is a situation the country has to deal with. At some point, they have to just do it,” says Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“The game is about congressional action,” Brown says. “For anything to pass with bipartisan support, compromises will be made, and some people will not be happy about it.”

How to convince Congress to go back to the drawing board on what’s proven to be a uniquely difficult issue? A close look at the midterm elections will give some clues. For example, what does the sizable Hispanic voting bloc in Colorado do if they are angry at Obama? If they sit home on Election Day, that could hurt Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat. Do the Republicans take over the Senate? That may give them their best chance at winning some of the immigration changes they want and not completely alienating Hispanics. But that also means they have to negotiate with Democrats.

Right now, everyone’s feelings might be a bit too raw to consider such a prospect. But political winds can change quickly.

“Everybody’s mad,” says Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. Aguilar is a staunch conservative, but he says a careful review of the Immigration and Nationality Act shows that Obama has the legal authority to suspend deportations, as all presidents have. Yet Aguilar is sympathetic with congressional Republicans who say any executive action from the president will kill their chances of getting legislation through Congress.

The raw politics of Obama’s decision to delay executive action until after the elections doesn’t help the trust level between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. “If the president were delaying the decision because he really wants to work with Republicans, I would applaud that, but that’s not what’s happening,” Aguilar says. “It’s even cruel because he is playing with people’s aspirations.”

New players may need to emerge to help bridge the gap between the congressional coalitions that are well known for opposing one another. Aguilar says rank-and-file Republicans will pay more attention to members with hard-core conservative credentials, like Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho or Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, than Republican leaders like House Speaker John Boehner.

He also says those members will need political cover from “nonbusiness conservative” groups, like National Right to Life or famous evangelical leaders like preacher James Dobson, to feel comfortable embracing a broad immigration overhaul. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports legalization of undocumented workers as part of broader immigration reform, doesn’t have a lot of credibility with conservatives.

“If the chamber is out lobbying for something, the tea party will take the opposing view,” Aguilar says.

As for the more moderate types, Sharry maintains that half of the public can be swayed to accept some kind of immigration policy that would allow unauthorized immigrants to stay here. But those people, and the members they elect, are easily cowed by outbursts from the 25 percent of people who oppose any form of legalization. This summer, negative reaction to the swell of undocumented minors crossing the border caused that support to wane.

“Democrats, especially in the South, over-interpret these shifts and think the issue will blow up in their faces,” Sharry says.

This group needs to be convinced it won’t hurt to be pro-immigration. Elections might help. But right now, political decisions from Obama and Congress are just reminding the public how volatile immigration is. And that makes everything harder.

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