Experts: Immigration reform not enough to swing midterm elections

Latino voters may hold more clout in presidential elections, in which supporters of comprehensive immigration reform may be able to swing specific states.
By Catherine Brzycki -- Medill News Service  |  Nov. 25, 2013 at 3:53 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 25 -- Republicans in the House who refuse to take on immigration reform don’t have much to fear from voters, according to a number of political experts. Despite public support for reform and the increase in Latino voters, this demographic has little clout in GOP-controlled districts.

“Immigration reform policy still ranks comparatively much lower in importance compared to the economy, job creation, the federal deficit, job and healthcare,” said Daniel Cox, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization in Washington.

That’s because immigration reform still has relatively little support compared with more immediate concerns over the recovering economy, health care and the federal budget.

Political analysts say that where the Latino vote does matter is in presidential elections because Hispanics can change outcomes statewide, swinging electoral votes in support of pro-reform candidates.

A Partnership for a New America poll released in early November found that an overwhelming majority of Americans, 71 percent, support immigration reform of some kind.

The Public Religion Research Institute conducted its own research and found similar results, released Monday. A majority of Americans, 63 percent, support immigration reform, specifically a pathway to citizenship, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

But despite the poll finding support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants among 60 percent of Republicans, 57 percent of independents and 73 percent of Democrats, Cox said the political climate in Washington poses a major threat to reform.

“One of the challenges people advocating for immigration reform are facing is the lack of political oxygen in D.C. right now,” Cox said.

In June, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill that included a 13-year pathway to citizenship with stipulations of paying back taxes, passing criminal background checks and English tests. The bill moved to the House of Representatives, where it stalled. Recently, House leaders said they will not take up the Senate-passed bill, but instead will break up immigration issues into smaller bills. Many House Republican leaders have said they favor a “lawful status” for immigrants but not a “pathway to citizenship.”

Dan Holler, spokesman for the conservative Heritage Action America, does not support a pathway to citizenship, but said that while U.S. immigration system needs to be fixed other pressing issues must be resolved first.

“I don’t think immigration is going to be a big issue in 2014, and quite frankly it won’t be a big issue until 2016 in part because Obamacare is going to be the issue everybody’s focusing on in 2014.”

Cox agreed, saying that in addition to the recovering economy, the messy healthcare roll out is “taking attention away from what could be immigration reform.”

The Partnership for a New American Economy survey, sponsored by Republicans for Immigration Reform and Compete America, goes on to say that support for reform will greatly affect swing states like Colorado, North Carolina and Wisconsin where voters are three times more likely to penalize opponents of reform.

But it may not be that simple. A major caveat to the overwhelming support for immigration reform in the polls is that the people most likely to support reform are the least likely to vote, especially in midterms.

“Non-white voters, Latinos and young voters are generally the most supportive of immigration reform but are much less likely to turn out and vote, while older white folks make up the bulk of voters in 2014,” Cox said.

Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, said that in addition to voter turnout, the effect immigration will have on swing states really depends on how big an issue immigration is within the individual districts.

“If it’s just not an issue because people in the district don’t care about it, your position on it may not have any influence,” Giovagnoli said.

Cox, the director of the Public Religion Research Institute argued that in many cases, Republicans are in voter-safe districts, despite their opposition to reform.

“The big fear for many of them is going up against another primary challenger from the right.” he said. “There is no incentive to come out on immigration reform, when they are in safe in their districts opposing it.”

Whether a district or a candidate cares about reform, Giovagnoli said that the long-term cost of inaction on immigration is mounting and changing the consciousness of the voting public.

“I think 2014 will be the last year most members of Congress can comfortably ignore it.”

But Holler, the Heritage spokesman, doesn’t see it that way. He said the Republican Party members are concerned about enriching their communities and creating jobs.

“If we can’t do that, it doesn’t matter what demographic you are or what happens with the amnesty-first bill, none of that matters because you won’t win people over anyways.”

Cox argued that stalling on immigration reform will hurt Republicans in the long run, especially in the next presidential election.

Giovagnoli agreed, asserting that the longer immigration reform is sidelined, the bigger the impact it will have on every election -- midterm or presidential.

“We’ve always known that the immigration issue wasn’t going to be resolved until the American public as a whole embraced it as an issue that affected them and their lives,” she said.

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