The Immigration Outlook for 2013

by Ryan Campbell | January 23, 2013

During the President’s New Years address to the nation, a subsequent video on the fiscal cliff and other recent public addresses, the President has made it clear that, alongside gun control in the wake of Newtown, immigration is a top priority.  With the GOP still struggling to define itself since their loss in November, Republican solidarity is on the wane as the GOP scrambles to choose new leaders and a new direction.  With the Republican Party still relatively leaderless, Obama can solidify a tone that will discredit Republicans and make them weaker by opening with the debate on immigration as soon as possible.

Politics, like pool or chess, is often a game of momentum: sink a few shots, take a few pawns, simply get what you want and you’ll often find yourself quickly taking an advantage the entire match.  This is a simplistic look admittedly: one needs to take into account that delivering on promises attracts sponsors both financially and politically, being crushed is bad for unity/morale and often leads politicians to defect to what they think is right when what the party thinks is right doesn’t look like it will win, etc.  With the momentum from the last election where coalition politics decisively beat going after the white male, Mad Men vote, common sense says immigration reform will be very difficult to oppose.

The fiscal cliff deal, while producing mixed results for each side, represents a landmark occasion: Republicans, recently hiding in their own alternative reality bubble of “unscrewed polls” that understandably drove Karl Rove to a meltdown when it popped on election night, were forced to face legislative reality or crash the economy again.  Although 151 Republicans in the House voted against the fiscal cliff deal, 85 voted for it.  This is a stark contrast to the solidarity we’ve seen that has lead to so little being done for the past few years, i.e. the debt ceiling debate and abuse of the filibuster.

Looking at the politics of the last few years, it’s easy to see how this has happened: many GOP members were defeated in a primary against a more conservative, Tea Party politician who could better appeal to primary voters by pointing out all the moments of “weakness” that were previously known as “reasonability” or “moderation” and defeat the incumbent (this became known as being “primaried”); basically, they cashed in on the unreasonability of the Republican primary voters, who have been stunningly unreasonable since Obama took office.

This created a right-wing drift in the GOP with long-time senators like Richard Lugar being “primaried” by Richard Mourdock.  Many incumbents survived being primaried by turning right hard on issues that they had previously been moderate on.  This was the sentiment that lead Romney to become harsher on immigration, both in policy and rhetoric, until he felt that he had solidified his base.  Supporting SB 1070, a veto of the DREAM Act and putting forward his “self-deportation” “plan” was all a part of this.  Even though he tried to move to the center of immigration issues during the debates, it was too little too late, and immigration was the reason largely cited for his stunning defeat amongst Latinos and Asians.

Recently, Marco Rubio has begun to talk on immigration again.  Rubio, parented by Cuban immigrants, is the leading Latino voice within the GOP.  His record, however, is mixed: he speaks warmly of DREAMers and how we shouldn’t deport them, yet opposed the DREAM Act.  He began drafting up his own legislation, which was essentially the DREAM Act without a pathway to citizenship, though this was ultimately routed by Obama when he offered DACA).  Other than his attempts and rhetoric, his only real legislative accomplishment that has any relation to the immigrant community was making undocumented immigrants, many of whom have children born in the US, ineligible for the Child Tax Credit.

In contrast, Obama’s record is also mixed: his administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any previous President’s, but he promised to sign the DREAM Act if Congress could bring it to his desk, has pushed for the DREAM Act publicly and created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to keep the DREAMers in the country.  When he was held against Romney, the contrast on immigration was night and day, however, against Rubio, there are fewer points of contention: Rubio’s for most of the DREAM Act and has sympathetic rhetoric on immigration and immigrants.  That being said, he’s still said he’d vote against the DREAM Act and has supported SB 1070.

What does all this mean for 2013?  It means that, in wooing the Latino vote, stay tuned for a GOP that softens its rhetoric nationally, and will accept more immigration reforms than in the past.  As far as a deal, Republicans know that they can’t lose Latino and Asian voters like they did last time, so they’ll be more likely to fall behind Rubio. Rubio will have to begin offering more to compete with Obama, i.e. a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, putting pressure on Arizona to end SB 1070 (as well as Alabama’s HB 56 and other similar laws).

In the past, Rubio has said that he didn’t have the votes for immigration reform.  With the last election results fresh in the GOP’s mind, Rubio may have the leverage to offer a much better deal than in the past.  He will still be competing, however, with Democrats to win those voters through immigration legislation and rhetoric.  Although the memory of Mitt Romney’s rhetoric still stings, Rubio may be able to flip a few Republicans on immigration issues, get the Democrats to sign on and offer a better deal than Obama could have negotiated.  On the other hand, Obama still has the momentum.

It’s hard to tell who will win politically, but, with each side competing fiercely for votes from immigrant-heavy communities, it seems obvious that 2013 should be a very good year for immigrants: they should have immigration plans that are competing for their votes come midterm elections.