With all the (legitimate) worry about the deficit and debt, the anxiety about the steady but still excruciatingly slow improvement in what was sky-high unemployment, and the embarrassing obsession with the debunked idea that President Obama was not born in the United States, immigration reform seems to be a back-burner issue. It shouldn’t be.
There are serious public-policy reasons to deal with immigration reform. There are 12 million immigrants living here in the shadows, and they aren’t going anywhere. They have to be dealt with, a matter best done by coming up with a clear but appropriately difficult path to legalization and citizenry. The angst over immigration has unnecessarily fueled hatred and misinformation; the lie that Arizona had the second-highest kidnapping rate in the world (due, it was erroneously said, to Mexican criminals) was repeated on the campaign trail last year. There persists an idea that illegal immigrants are sapping the Social Security coffers, a claim that is also untrue. Illegal immigrants may be paid under the table--in which case they are not paying into Social Security, it’s true--or may have Social Security taxes deducted from their checks. But they don’t collect: illegal immigrants, no matter how long they’ve been here, are not eligible for Social Security benefits, and even legal workers are not eligible unless they have worked for 10 consecutive quarters. Since legal, temporary workers often don’t stay that long, the greater likelihood is that immigrants are subsidizing the Social Security fund, not draining it. [See a slide show of the 11 cities with the most Hispanics.]
But since presidential campaign politics tend to drive the debate these days more than actual policy, both parties should be cognizant of what immigration means for the ever-growing Latino vote. Hispanics have tended to vote strongly Democratic in recent elections (George W. Bush was the last Republican to make serious inroads into the voter segment), but they are not an automatic Democratic voting group. Many are Roman Catholic, and have conservative social leanings. They do not share a common American struggle--like African-Americans do with slavery and civil rights--that give one party or the other an automatic advantage. [Read more about immigration reform.]
Republicans may get a boost if, for example, they nominated Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for vice-president. "You’ve got to give the Republicans some credit, at least, for nurturing" Hispanic candidates, noted former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is of Latino descent. What really damages the GOP among Hispanics, Richardson told a group of Latin America policy experts at an NDN conference this week, is their hostility to immigration reform--a position that makes it hard for Latino voters to cast a Republican vote, Rubio or no Rubio. [See who donates to Rubio.]
“Immigration reform probably is, today, one of the most pressing issues the country has,” Richardson said. True--and there’s a political reason to take it on, as well.