Regular readers of The Agenda won’t be surprised by the new report from the Pew Hispanic Center, which finds that net migration from Mexico has fallen to zero. But the news might be trickling through the political conversation. Josh Kraushaar of National Journal offers his thoughts on the potential political implications: (1) the Latino share of the electorate might not increase as much over the 2008 level, as Democrats have assumed; (2) salience of “the illegal immigration litmus test,” i.e., the insistence among Republican primary voters and grassroots conservatives that GOP candidates take a strong stand against immigration policies that aim to regularize the status of unauthorized immigrants, might decline; (3) and finally, the partisan affiliation of Latino voters might change as first-generation immigrants grow older.
I like Kraushaar — he strikes me as an astute analyst — but I would have appreciated more context. For example, is (1) true because the Pew findings suggest that intensity around the immigration issue will decline among Latinos, or because the Latino population isn’t growing as quickly as many had anticipated? The argument from (2) has been made by pro-regularization Republicans in the past, yet it’s not clear that there is a tight relationship between aggregate levels of net migration from Mexico and concern about unauthorized immigrants. One reason the issue has taken on renewed importance is that Mexican migrants are no longer as concentrated in the traditional “immigrant gateway states,” like California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, as they had been in past decades. Rather, they’ve increasingly settled in states that have been magnets for native-born domestic migrants. National numbers concerning net migration don’t tell us much about local shifts of this kind.
Moreover, the concern about unauthorized immigration might be motivated less by concerns about congestion costs and labor market competition, the latter of which is most relevant to earlier immigrants with limited English proficiency and less-skilled workers who tend not to be intensely politically engaged, and more by a general sense of fair play. Authorized immigrants, for example, are among those who are vexed by large-scale unauthorized immigration, in part because they don’t like the idea of people “jumping the queue.”
Earlier today, I was on a television program on MSNBC. During one of the segments, the host spoke with Ken Cuccinelli, the Attorney General of Virginia who is also a Republican gubernatorial candidate for 2013. Though Cuccinelli is seen by some on the left as an anti-immigration zealot, I was struck by his judicious, fair-minded language, e.g., he made a point of arguing that unauthorized immigrants aren’t scofflaws but rather people who are looking for work yet who need to be held accountable. He also noted that the immigration bureaucracy is sclerotic and extremely hard to navigate, an observation that could and should be construed as fundamentally sympathetic to the immigrants forced to navigate it. This isn’t to say that Cuccinelli has cracked the code for how to talk about immigration — but I think he’s come close, particularly if he’s given an opportunity to define his take on the issue.
As I often tell friends and colleagues, at least three of the Republican presidential candidates explicitly endorsed liberalizing immigration policy as it relates to skilled immigrants, particularly those educated in the United States during a debate; yet the moderator of the debate insisted on returning the conversation to “border enforcement.” It seems clear that Republicans need to be forward-leaning on this issue, if only to avoid having their views defined, and misrepresented, by their opponents.