Arizona's immigration debate increased pressure on Congress to act on immigration reform, but produced little political impact for the midterm elections outside of the Grand Canyon State.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton issued a temporary injunction on the most controversial portions of an immigration enforcement law that re-ignited national debate on the issue. Bolton's ruling agreed with the Justice Department's claim that these portions of the law are the responsibility of the federal government, not individual states.
A packed congressional calendar and upcoming midterm elections mean it's unlikely the behemoth of immigration reform will push its way to the Senate or House floor this calendar year, but the recent conflict in Arizona has analysts predicting immigration will be a top agenda item when the 112th Congress convenes in January. [See a gallery of immigration cartoons.]
The issue has long been a touchstone for Latino voters, who are frustrated with the lack of government attention to reform. Recent Gallup polls show President Obama has lost support of Hispanic voters since January 2010, including a five-point drop in February and a six-point drop in March, two months when, Gallup says, Obama faced criticism over his lack of action on immigration reform. The poll shows support from black and white voters went unchanged during the same periods. "They're frustrated. Latinos are frustrated; non-Latinos are frustrated," says Rafael Bejar, national director of right-leaning Latino Political Consulting, and an adjunct professor of politics at George Washington University. "If the federal government did its job, there would be no need for the Arizona law."
Bolton's ruling effectively calmed down the immediate urgency of debate, a plus for those hoping for a cooler, longer discussion. "For the president and for Democrats," says Andre Pineda, a political consultant to Democrats, "the best thing to do was turn down the heat for a while." Pineda points out that immigration reform was not a high political priority nationally before Arizona's frustration with Congress boiled over into an effort to solve illegal immigration on their own.
Sen. John McCain, a vocal advocate of Arizona's law, has seen protests and sit-ins over the issue, as well as concern in town hall meetings from Arizonans who want a more secure border, according to his campaign's communications director, Brian Rogers. McCain's central role hasn't hurt him in the polls, which show him nearly 30 points ahead of his primary challenger, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, and he faces little apparent challenge so far from Democrats. Rogers doesn't think the injunction will have much of an effect on either the primary or general race. [See where McCain's campaign cash comes from.]
The real political winner in Arizona's immigration debate is Gov. Jan Brewer, who is also up for re-election. Since she signed the immigration law in April, her poll numbers against Democratic state Attorney General Terry Goddard have skyrocketed. According to Rasmussen Reports, Brewer went from trailing Goddard by nine points in March to leading him by 18 points in July.
And Brewer's campaign dance card is quickly filling up. So far, she has endorsed Georgia's gubernatorial candidate and Secretary of State Karen Handel and Colorado's Senate candidate, Lt. Gov. Jane Norton. Brewer's rise in popularity already has pundits comparing her to another famous governor, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
But analysts doubt the Arizona controversy will make much of a political splash in elections farther from Mexico's border. National campaigns are focused on unemployment, the economy, taxes, and healthcare, and it's unlikely immigration will overcome these as a key campaign issue. But Pineda says candidates should be aware of how their stance on immigration will affect the Latino vote.
A recent CNN-Opinion Research Corporation national poll suggests Hispanic voters are not unanimous in their view of immigration policy. Twenty-four percent of Hispanics polled favor Arizona's law. The poll also shows 65 percent of Hispanic voters favor increased law enforcement at the U.S. border with Mexico, 31 percent favor a 700-mile long border fence, and 94 percent want a program to allow illegal immigrants already in the U.S. to apply to stay legally.
"Regardless of where Latino voters are on specific immigration policy, they have been very upset by the rhetoric that has been used by Republicans in this whole debate," Pineda says. "The way Republicans have questioned the American-ness of Latinos who are US citizens."
Latino voters have shown a willingness to vote for Republican candidates in the past, but Pineda says it's unlikely that will be the case this year. Former President George W. Bush came away with approximately 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, surprising many political insiders. In 2008, Latinos swung back to Democrats, giving Obama 67 percent of the vote and McCain 31 percent.
If Pineda is right, 2010 will be a good year for Democrats hoping to capture more votes from Latinos.
- See which industries give the most to Congress.
- Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on immigration.
Corrected on 8/5/10: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Brian Rogers.