Why Immigration Reform Is Bad Politics This Year

I believe in comprehensive immigration reform—so much so that I helped organize a bipartisan task force on the matter. (Here is the report.) I understand that most Americans have qualms about taking harshly punitive measures against illegal immigrants. And there is little doubt that a party seen as anti-immigrant will eventually lose the support of an increasingly diverse population, and especially of young people, as the fate of the post-Pete Wilson Republican Party in California demonstrates.

But I still have no idea why some leading Democrats, such as Chuck Schumer, think that pushing this issue right now will be helpful in November. If they believe that recent events in Arizona have created a public groundswell for a more liberal response, they’re just wrong. Let’s look at four high-quality national surveys conducted this month.

According to a CBS/New York Times poll, 65 percent of Americans see illegal immigration as a “very serious problem,” 74 percent think it weakens the economy, and 78 percent believe the U.S. should be doing more to stop it. These beliefs help explain why 51 percent of the people think that the new Arizona law is “about right,” versus only 36 percent who say it “goes too far.” They reach this conclusion despite the fact that 72 percent think it will have disproportionate effects on certain racial and ethnic groups and 78 percent believe it will burden police departments. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds the same thing: 64 percent of respondents support the Arizona legislation (46 percent strongly) despite the fact that 66 percent believe that it will lead to discrimination against Latino immigrants who are in this country legally.

The Pew Research Center probed more deeply and came to a similar conclusion. Its researchers began by examining public opinion on three key provisions of the Arizona law: requiring people to produce documents verifying legal status (73 percent approval); allowing the police to detain anyone unable to verify legal status (67 percent approval); and giving authorities the right to question anyone they think may be in the country illegally (62 percent approval). Pew then asked whether, “considering everything,” respondents endorsed the Arizona bill: 59 percent said yes, versus only 32 percent who disapproved.

Pew breaks down its results by subgroup. While the results for Republicans and independents are predictable, those for Democrats aren’t. Sixty-five percent of Democrats support requiring people to produce documents, 55 percent would allow detention of non-verifiers, and 50 percent would allow questioning based on police suspicion only. Accordingly, Democrats are split down the middle on the Arizona law: 45 percent in favor, 46 percent opposed. Notably, Pew finds somewhat more Democratic support than do the other surveys, suggesting that additional information about the Arizona law tends to move Democrats toward it rather than away from it.

For its part, a series of Gallup surveys also underscores the public’s concerns with immigration. A majority believes that we should emphasize better border-control, and 51 percent of Americans who have heard about the Arizona law support it as opposed to 39 percent who don’t.

This does not mean that the United States as a whole is on the verge of a new era of nativism. Each survey identifies reservoirs of sympathy for immigrants, illegal as well as legal. But when Americans strike an overall balance, their concern about the social and economic consequences of the current situation outweighs their worries about the humanitarian consequences of changing it. That is why Gallup concludes one of its surveys as follows: “Recent Gallup polling found nearly as many Americans rating immigration reform as an important national priority as said this about financial reform for Wall Street. That aligns with the wishes of some Senate Democrats who are reportedly pressing for quick action on comprehensive immigration reform.” However, continues the Gallup report, “Public opinion on the issue might not align as well with the policies these Democrats have in mind.” Based on the evidence I’ve cited from four respected survey organizations, it’s hard to disagree.

Democrats who favor proceeding with this issue have two remaining arguments. They claim that, win or lose, pushing hard on an immigration bill would mobilize parts of the party’s base and produce net gains for Democratic candidates in key districts and states. Given the fact that at least nine out of ten voters this November will be non-Latinos and that most contests involving high percentages of Latino voters are likely to remain safely in the Democratic column anyway, this claim is intuitively hard to believe. At any rate, the burden of proof is on its proponents.

Second, one may argue that all of this is irrelevant: the Arizona law is an unconscionable assault on the civil rights of immigrants who are here legally and on the human rights of those who aren’t. The soul of the Democratic Party is at stake, and shrinking from the fight would be a disgrace. Maybe so. But no one should believe that virtue will be its own reward—certainly not between now and November.