Comprehensive Immigration Reform and the Latino Vote

The Latino electorate is increasingly becoming a factor in American politics, as anyone who studied the 2008 presidential election can tell you. Candidate Obama was carried to the White House by a broad coalition, to be sure, but a key part of that coalition was the growing Latino electorate that turned out in force on Election Day, and helped put him over the top. The strong support Obama received from Latino voters stems at least in part from his promise to enact comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) within a year of being elected – a promise consigned to the political back burner while the new administration was busy squeezing the financial crisis, two wars, a series of foreign policy emergencies, and other bigger fish into the political deep-fryer.

For the past two years, President Obama has been assailed by critics from the right who charge that he hasn’t done enough to stanch the flow of illegal immigrants across the southwestern border, despite a massive border enforcement campaign that has far outstripped the efforts of his predecessor in the pace of arrests and deportations. In fact, the administration’s hardline stance on immigration enforcement – undertaken ostensibly to give right-wing critics less to complain about and prepare the way for CIR – has actually backfired, alienating some of his Latino supporters.

Even on his home turf of Chicago, the President is being challenged by Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), a prominent Latino Democrat who has been advocating CIR for some time now – thus far, without success. As the Chicago Tribune reports, “U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez told a group of immigration reform supporters on Saturday [in Chicago] he’s not sure he could back President Barack Obama in 2012 if he doesn’t step up efforts to change deportation policy and education opportunities for illegal students.” (See Gutierrez: Support for Obama Depends on Reform, by Barbara Rodriguez, Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, 16.Apr.2011.)

According to the Chicago Tribune, Rep. Gutierrez has taken this message on the road, and is making a “multi-city tour” to drum up support for CIR. At the Chicago event on Saturday, the Chicago Tribune reports, Gutierrez told the crowd:

“I have nothing but the greatest desire to vote for Barack Obama. I have nothing but the greatest desire to be helpful, and to join arms with him, and march across this country toward his re-election. But I cannot do that. We cannot do that, until we resolve the current conflict that exists between this administration and its immigration policy.”

So much for party loyalty. Gutierrez says he does not intend to support a GOP candidate, either, but his challenge to Obama may amount to the same thing, if Latino voters predicate their future support for Obama on his ability to deliver CIR before the 2012 elections. As Gutierrez told the Chicago Tribune, “It’s really not a question about a Republican candidate. It’s a question about how many people are going to turn out to vote and what the level of enthusiasm is going to be.” The implied threat is very real: in tight races, voter turnout is often the deciding factor.

Meanwhile, Republicans face an immigration dilemma of their own, trying to make overtures to the growing Latino electorate without angering the nativist wing of their conservative base. Reflecting on her recent unsuccessful run for governor in California, former eBay CEO, Meg Whitman, told the Los Angeles Times, “My view is that the immigration discussion, the rhetoric the Republican Party uses, is not helpful; it’s not helpful in a state with the Latino population we have. We as a party are going to have to make some changes, how we think about immigration, and how we talk about immigration.” (See Meg Whitman Says the GOP Must Change its Approach on Immigration, by Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times, 13.Apr.2011.)

The LA Times notes that Whitman made strong overtures to California’s substantial Latino electorate, but lost credibility by associating herself with former California Governor Pete Wilson, who strongly supported a 1994 ballot initiative to withhold government social services from illegal immigrants. According to the LA Times, Whitman had hoped Pete Wilson’s support would help establish her bona fides with conservative voters, during the primary election. Whitman’s political positioning problems mirror those of the GOP as a whole; Republicans who embrace more moderate immigration policies – hoping to attract more Latino voters – risk alienating some of their core supporters. Accordingly, the likely GOP Presidential hopefuls have a plethora of competing positions on immigration – some equivocating, for now, others casting their lot with the anti-immigrant wing of the party. (See Danger Zone for GOP Candidates – Immigration, by Ruben Navarrette,, 15.Apr.2011.)

Both sides need to come to grips with the increasing power of the Latino electorate. How soon this will translate into a push for comprehensive immigration reform is anyone’s guess – but as long as the Democrats need to show progress on CIR, and the GOP fears losing more core support than it thinks it could gain among Latino voters, the current logjam is unlikely to break.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.