The battle isn’t in Washington. It’s in the Midwest.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a conservative Republican, tends to fall in lock step with his political brethren on most hot-button issues. He is firmly anti-abortion and signed into law certain late-term abortions in the state. He believes strongly in gun rights and was endorsed in the last election by the National Rifle Association. But on immigration reform, Snyder dramatically parts with the GOP pack. “Our country needs a long-term, comprehensive solution to an immigration policy that everyone knows is broken,” he said recently—just before President Barack Obama provoked howls of outrage from Republicans in Washington by announcing his plan to suspend the deportation of some 5 million immigrants.
You might think that Snyder is a lonesome GOP voice on immigration, especially after the U.S. House voted this week to withhold part of the Department of Homeland Security’s budget as a way of rolling back some of the provisions of the president’s executive action, and when Beltway firebrands like Sen. Ted Cruz are calling for presidential judicial and executive nominees to be held hostage to the rescinding of the presidential order. But here in the Midwest, Snyder has plenty of distinguished company. Like-minded Republicans include Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a possible presidential contender, who caused controversy within the Republican Party on Nov. 18 when he said he was open to considering Obama’s citizenship plan for illegal immigrants.
“My sense is I don’t like the idea of citizenship when people jump the line, [but] we may have to do it,” Kasich said at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Florida late last year. “Everybody in this country has to feel as though they have an opportunity.” Another possible presidential prospect from the Midwest—Indiana Gov. Mike Pence—had proposed a comprehensive immigration reform plan in 2006 when he was in Congress, though he appears to be distancing himself from that now that he finds his name mentioned in the Republican presidential talk.
What Snyder—and Kasich, to some extent—are articulating is a viewpoint on immigration from the Midwest that is different from the national debate, which tends to center on border fences and deportation. In these post-industrial states, which have seen huge population loss and economic distress in cities such as Detroit and Cleveland, Snyder and other Republican political leaders are seeing immigration as a tool to help the region “grow and thrive,” as Snyder said in his statement. Or as Karen Phillippi, deputy director of Michigan’s Office of New Americans, puts it: “The focus of our immigration policy is more on economic impact than on social justice.”
The main thrust of the Midwestern pro-immigration argument is based on two points: first, that immigrants tend to be more entrepreneurial than native-borns and therefore are job creators; and second, Midwestern colleges and universities have large numbers of foreign students, and the region wants to keep them after they graduate by opening up the number of visas available.
The Midwestern business community—including both the industrial and agricultural sectors—has long supported immigration reform based on economic criteria. In a survey published last year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 75 percent of Midwest Republican business leaders (from a 12-state survey area) favored the comprehensive U.S. Senate immigration reform bill, which was never put to a vote in the House. As Snyder argued, “Immigrants are proven job creators, and we should tap their entrepreneurial spirit to accelerate our recovery. We have thousands of students who are trained at our world-class universities who want to stay and be a part of our reinvention.”
Snyder, who was elected to his second term last fall, is a former executive with computer giant Gateway and a venture capitalist who sees immigrants as valuable human capital in the new economy. Last January, he started Michigan’s Office of New Americans, an agency designed to help make Michigan a more “welcoming environment” for foreign-borns. Around the same time, Snyder also proposed that the federal government create 50,000 new visas for highly skilled workers, and to have them tied to the recipients living for a certain amount of time in Detroit. His request was novel: U.S. visas have never been awarded based upon geography.
Hence, when the 2016 campaign gets into full swing, it is very possible that the immigration issue will play differently in the important Midwestern swing states of Ohio, Michigan Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (Illinois is most certainly in the Democrat camp) than it has been recently on Capitol Hill. National GOP strategists, analyzing these regional differences, will argue even more strongly that the party desperately needs to do better with the Hispanic vote than Mitt Romney did in 2012 (when he was walloped by Obama 71 percent to 27 percent) if it is to take the White House.
To be sure, there are serious divisions within the Midwest itself. Kasich, Snyder and other Republicans are not about to publicly endorse the entire Obama plan. Indeed, the one side of the issue that seems to be problematic for Republicans of all stripes—in the Midwest too—is the so-called amnesty program. Almost every Midwestern state except Illinois and Minnesota joined a lawsuit against the Obama administration over its immigration order.
What doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny any longer is the simplistic political reckoning that Republicans can win over Midwestern voters—especially lower-income white voters who oppose Obama’s plan allowing undocumented immigrants to get work permits—by simply holding firm against immigration reform. Cutting funding to the DHS was going to be a hard sell to the public even before the Paris terrorist attacks, especially since Republicans likely don’t have the 60 votes.
And for Republicans in the Midwest, there is little political payoff by backing such symbolic congressional actions. Another view is gaining traction here: New immigrants are not moving to inner-city enclaves exclusively, like their predecessors, but are more likely to live in the suburbs, where more Republican voters reside, and these voters see them more as neighbors than as political fodder. These recent immigrants also tend to be more educated; in Ohio, about 40 percent of foreign-born people age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 24 percent of the native-born population.
The new immigrants are also more likely to move to smaller urban areas now, according to many studies, instead of cities like New York and Los Angeles and Chicago as they did two decades ago. So rust-belt cities like Indianapolis and Dayton and Columbus and Madison (as well as Nashville and Little Rock and Scranton-Wilkes-Barre) are seeing big immigrant growth—and it is growth that they, far more than their East and West Coast counterparts, see as a revitalizing rather than a negative trend. Winning these urban areas (and the suburbs of Cleveland and Detroit) in 2016 could well be the key to winning the battleground states.
As a result, some Republicans are beginning to suggest that an extreme anti-immigrant message will drive away enough Midwestern voters to matter in 2016. This is especially true of the standard red-meat rhetoric we’ve heard on the right in recent years: the argument that liberalizing immigration is part of a Democratic conspiracy to increase entitlement spending, and therefore Democratic voting rolls.
“I think John Kasich’s comments and Rick Snyder’s policies of immigration as being a vital part of economic recovery for parts of the Midwest are signs that economic pragmatism—what Republicans have always used as their model—is more important than party partisanship,” said Mike Murphy, a Republican member of the Indiana House of Representatives from 1994 to 2010 and currently a political consultant based in Indianapolis.
Murphy points out that Indianapolis increased its foreign-born population nearly 120 percent from 2000 to 2010, and that the economic future of many Indiana businesses—agricultural and high-tech and service—is tied to improving the availability of human capital. “The Republican Party is destroying itself for the future if they are perceived as anti-immigrant,” Murphy said. “And it isn’t just to get more of the Hispanic vote. It is because white voters in Indianapolis and Columbus and other cities will know immigrants from their neighborhoods and see them as a community asset.”
Columbus is an interesting example, and Kasich knows the city well, having graduated from Ohio State University and winning his first election in the 15th District Ohio Senate seat in 1978. Columbus increased its foreign-born population from 72,000 to 132,000 from 2000 to 2010, an increase of 84 percent. Ohio State University has 6,800 foreign students enrolled and ranks 12th nationally among colleges and universities in the number of students with F1 visas (which allows them to go to school but not be employed). Many in the city think Columbus needs to take the next step from college town to global center for innovation, and more immigrants is a good way to judge that.
Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, who created a sort of one-stop shopping city program for immigrants that helps them with city services and language barriers and other programs, said last year that “not only am I not going to build a fence, but I’m going to put up a welcome sign and do everything I can to attract more immigrants here.” The cover story in the March issue of Columbus Magazine last year was titled “The Story of Us” and featured recent immigrants to the Columbus area.
On the political side, the Columbus metropolitan area voted for Obama by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin in 2012. Some think an anti-immigrant message in the next presidential race now will push Ohio’s largest city even further into Democratic control.
Neither Kasich nor his spokesman, Robert Nichols, would comment for this story. But his comments in Florida may be some indication that he sees an anti-immigrant image as being detrimental to a presidential run. Though none of the other Republican governors called Kasich out specifically for his comments, back home the remarks were fairly popular. Said Republican Ohio House member Terry Boose: “I have vegetable farmers in my district who can’t find people to pick their crops, and the western part of my district is on the edge of the Cleveland area, and I understand how they see immigration as a viable economic model.”
Others are looking for a way to thread the needle—backing serious reform while still coming down against amnesty. Boose, for example, wants Congress to take the U.S. Senate bill passed in 2013 and break it up into parts, leaving out the amnesty part. Indiana’s Murphy said “both Obama and Republicans are to blame here, and there has to be a more workable way to complete the amnesty portion of the reform so we can move on.”
Christopher Gibbs, who was the GOP chairman of Shelby County in Ohio for seven years before he resigned last year to focus on immigration reform through an advocacy group that combines religious evangelicals, law enforcement and business leaders, says that “amnesty for anyone here illegally is a nonstarter” for 2016. But Gibbs said Kasich and Snyder “at least have evolved some on this issue, because any presidential candidate that hasn’t reached out beyond those comfortable gerrymandered Republican districts on immigration in this modern global economy isn’t going to get the White House period.”
How this is going to play out in the presidential campaign over the next two years is hard to figure at this point. The states with the most immigrants and most electoral votes—California, Texas, New York and Illinois—are not likely to be in play (Florida is the only state in the top 10 that might be). So highlighting the immigration reform issue in the states where it matters most will be a waste of time and money.
But the pathway to the White House will go through the Midwestern swing states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin—and while all these states have immigrant populations that are less than half of the national average (13 percent), they are also states that have jumped on the immigrant economic development bandwagon in the past few years. And programs like Michigan’s Office of New Americans (only New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania have similar state agencies) seem popular. In a poll of Michigan voters done this past summer, 84 percent said Congress “should take action” on immigration reform, and 64 percent said they would vote for a 2016 presidential candidate “from a political party that supports immigration reform.”
The key question is whether upper-middle-class white suburban voters like those in Columbus—the type of key independent voters both parties need to take these battleground states—will react negatively to an anti-immigrant message in the 2016 campaign. In a poll done last year, 68 percent of Ohio voters said they either strongly supported or somewhat supported the comprehensive Senate bill. The support was 64 percent among both independents and Republicans and 74 percent among Democrats.
Those numbers were slightly higher than national polling numbers on immigration, but recent polls have been all over the map, depending on how the question of “amnesty” is asked. Yet it is clear that Republican and independent voters in the Midwest are not as gung-ho on stopping any immigration reform as some of their counterparts in the Southwest. The real issue is whether this serious regional divide will turn into a national wedge issue inside the GOP as we head into presidential election season.