Politics & Policy

A Political Train Wreck

Immigration-reform rally in Washington, April 10, 2013.
Long before the first amnesty recipient casts a vote, the Senate bill will be a political disaster for the GOP.

Most of the Republican House members who gathered this week to discuss immigration understand that passing anything like the Obama amnesty bill would be politically harmful to them. Even Jay Leno has gotten knowing laughs with a crack about “undocumented Democrats.” Ann Coulter has written that “if illegals were Republicans, Chuck Schumer would be a ‘Minuteman,’ patrolling the Mexican border 24-7.”

The Left knows this too. Eliseo Medina, a top official with both the SEIU and Democratic Socialists of America, noted years before this particular bill was written that “immigration reform” is an important part of the statist project: “If we are to expand this [Hispanic] electorate to win, the progressive community needs to solidly be on the side of immigrants; that will solidify and expand the progressive coalition for the future.”

#ad#Even ostensibly neutral observers make the same point. As Politico noted earlier this year:

The immigration proposal pending in Congress would transform the nation’s political landscape for a generation or more — pumping as many as 11 million new Hispanic voters into the electorate a decade from now in ways that, if current trends hold, would produce an electoral bonanza for Democrats and cripple Republican prospects in many states they now win easily.

But the prospect of millions of new big-government, socially liberal voters is a cloud as small as a man’s hand. It’s serious, but it’ll be a while before it gets here. By contrast, passage of amnesty and expanded immigration will immediately create a political sky grown dark with clouds and wind for conservatism — among Americans who are already voters. It would be an electoral catastrophe for Republicans, who would look back with envy at Romney’s 27 percent share of Hispanic votes and last year’s 64.1 percent turnout among whites.

Before proceeding with the political discussion, it’s important to note that the malignant pastiche passed by the Senate is bad legislation regardless of its political effects. I don’t often agree with George W. Bush on the subject of immigration, but he noted recently that immigration proposals should be judged on their merits, not simply on whether they would garner votes.

But since politics matters more to many in Washington than policy, especially regarding immigration, it’s necessary to engage the discussion. And this bill would be a disaster for Republicans long before the first amnestied illegal alien enters a voting booth.



First of all, passage of any bill would immediately reverse Barack Obama’s sinking political fortunes. The administration is reeling from a succession of scandals and setbacks: Benghazi, IRS abuses, AP phone records, DoJ spying on James Rosen, Verizon/NSA, defeat of gun control. His approval ratings have dropped and George W. Bush now has a higher favorability rating. The Hill quoted an unnamed “top Democratic strategist” on the president’s political situation: “He needs wins and he needs them soon. There’s no way around that.” A recent Washington Examiner headline summed it up nicely: “Zogby: Obama is on the verge of failure.”

Passing a major amnesty/immigration bill is the only way the president can salvage his second term and continue his project of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”

And so, as if on cue, the Chuck Schumer Republicans (now including Paul Ryan) rush in to save Barack Obama’s presidency. If anything resembling the Senate bill were to pass, the legacy media would trumpet him as the Comeback Kid. You can imagine the headlines: “Obama’s Back!” “2nd-Term Rebound,” “Slam Dunk in the Second Half.” Political capital flows to winners; this would allow Obama to deliver greater assistance to Democratic candidates in 2014. Strengthening Obama’s hand would make it harder for Republicans to prevail in the upcoming budget/debt fights and any other battles that arise during the remainder of Obama’s term.



How about the Hispanic vote? The GOP-establishment brain trust says passage of the bill would put the immigration issue behind the party, removing an irritant in its outreach efforts to Hispanic and Asian Americans. Regrettably, it will do nothing of the kind. After the initial euphoria among the open-borders groups over legalization for all illegals, the next phase of the Left’s strategy will kick in: blaming Republicans for the various restrictions on the now-legal “provisional” immigrants. This will negate, and then some, any imagined goodwill that voting for an amnesty/immigration bill might generate.


For instance, Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) has touted the bill’s decade-long restriction on access to certain welfare programs for amnesty beneficiaries until they upgrade to full green-card status (and eventual citizenship). Even though enforcement of the welfare bar is sure to be weak, at best, the Democrats’ strategy will nonetheless be to fight the second-class, Jim Crow status the evil Republicans have imposed on the poor immigrants. They already have a term for it: Juan Cuervo immigration status. (“Jim Crow” would properly be “Diego Cuervo,” but Juan is a single syllable and starts with a J, so apparently it’s more suitable in drawing the invidious parallel to the struggle of black Americans.)

NRO’s own Andrew Stiles has already provided the likely slogans for the Left’s campaign against the GOP if the bill passes:

The ten-year wait for a green card? Too long. The American Dream should not be deferred!

The roughly $2,000 in proposed fees and fines? Too punitive. Repeal the GOP tax on immigration!

#ad#Et cetera. Every “concession” extracted from the Democrats by Chuck Schumer’s Republican collaborators will be used as a political weapon against them and against the entire GOP. Immigration will never be “taken off the table” or “put behind us”; managing it is a permanent feature of modern government. There will always be scores of millions more people with the desire and means to move here than we will ever be prepared to admit. No amount of pandering or wishful thinking will eliminate the need for a muscular immigration policy.



But the immediate political fallout for Republicans from enacting Obama’s immigration agenda doesn’t stop there. The Hispanic vote, while growing, is still relatively small, and Republicans don’t get that much of it anyway. But the decline in the non-college-educated white vote has been an important cause of declining Republican fortunes in presidential elections. My colleague Steven Camarota, using Census Bureau data, calculated that if these whites had turned out last November at the same rate they did in 2004, 4 million more of them would have voted. Sean Trende incorporated expected population growth and concluded that if whites had turned out at the same rate as in 2008, some 6.5 million more would have voted, most of them blue-collar populists, who “would stay home rather than vote for an urban liberal like President Obama or a severely pro-business venture capitalist like Mitt Romney.”

These are people who really, really wouldn’t like the Senate bill, or anything like it. A law that conveys national weakness, rewards lawbreaking in exchange for meaningless promises of future enforcement, is stuffed with corporate welfare, and imports millions upon millions of people from abroad to compete with them and their children in a persistently tough labor market — well, let’s just say it’s not something that’s going to motivate these voters to turn out for the GOP. Any bill ushering in large-scale amnesty and mass immigration would further damage the Republican brand among the very people it’s being marketed to. Why bother to vote when neither party cares about your well-being or shares your values?

The continued drop in blue-collar turnout that would be caused by Republican complicity in passage of an amnesty/immigration bill would be compounded by more frequent primary challenges to Republican House members, and even some third-party candidates’ siphoning off enough votes to enable Democrats to win. There could potentially even be a non-trivial third-party presidential candidate in 2016. Third-party talk is often empty, but note three things: (1) Those who stayed home are, as Trende notes, “the heart of the ‘Perot coalition,’” and that third-party effort enjoyed considerable success; (2) Sarah Palin and tea-party groups have been scathing in their denunciations of the Senate bill and its GOP supporters, both on security grounds and as an attack on American workers; and (3) Palin has already hinted at the possibility of starting a third party. Even with limited success, such a populist effort would spell disaster for the GOP.

To compound the electoral debacle that would be caused by passing an amnesty bill, vulnerable Democrats in the House would be permitted by Nancy Pelosi to vote “No,” allowing them to tout a strong, pro-enforcement, populist position on the campaign trail and muddying any attack on them by a GOP challenger. This would be possible because, as a Hill source told me this week, there may be as many as 50 House Republicans who would vote for the Senate bill if Boehner were to bring it to the floor, and thus would certainly vote for whatever bill might come out of conference. That would give Pelosi the flexibility to permit a couple of dozen of her more vulnerable members to cast a “No” vote for electoral purposes, and still pass Obama’s top domestic-policy goal.

Along these same lines, it will be hard for the Republicans running against vulnerable Senate Democrats like Mark Pryor of Arkansas or Mary Landrieu of Louisiana to use their amnesty vote against them if the GOP has endorsed it too. Every Senate Democrat voted for the immigration bill, with the reluctant ones falling into line in response to a combination of threats and bribes. But they will pay no price for that vote if Republicans help drag the bill over the finish line. Chuck Schumer’s Republicans will have thrown away the chance to take back the Senate.



The cascading electoral problems would continue. It’s certain that the first stage of the amnesty — conferring “registered provisional immigrant” status on illegal aliens, starting six months after the bill’s passage — would be a fraud-ridden debacle. The mismatch between the administrative capacity of the bureaucracy and the enormous task it would be expected to accomplish — combined with intense political pressure to approve people as quickly as possible — would result in widespread rubber-stamping of applications.

We’ve seen this movie before. The 1986 amnesty was described — by the New York Times, no less — as “one of the most extensive immigration frauds ever perpetrated against the United States government.” In all, it’s estimated that at least one-fourth of successful amnesty applications were fraudulent. One of those who benefited was Mahmoud “The Red” Abouhalima, an Egyptian cabbie who got amnesty by claiming to be a farmworker; only after he received legal status was he able to travel freely to Afghanistan, get terrorist training, and return to help lead the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

#ad#The unconstitutional “deferred action” amnesty that Obama decreed last summer, and which is underway now, is no better, with very few applicants being called in for interviews and 99.5 percent of applications so far approved.

This is politically relevant because, if an amnesty bill is passed this fall, the next two election cycles will be colored by stories of the fraud fiasco, the profusion of prevarication, the deluge of deceit — and Republicans will own that disaster. There could be 2 or 3 million people receiving amnesty fraudulently, and the Chuck Schumer Republicans won’t be able to credibly blame the administration, because they were told repeatedly this would happen, and they passed the bill anyway. Their trust in Barack Obama will have been exposed as foolish, undermining the GOP’s credibility as a critic of the administration. In particular, Marco Rubio, the amnesty’s front man, will pay a heavy political price for his role in engineering the disaster.



And then there are the macro-political effects of huge increases in the number of less-skilled immigrants admitted. The extra 10 million newly arrived legal immigrants who would be admitted over the next decade (that’s 10 million more than if current law remained in place), plus at least 3 million new illegal aliens, according to the CBO’s best guess, will all be counted for purposes of apportioning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as state legislatures. All residents are counted, regardless of citizenship; thus, immigration fosters the creation of hollow districts with few voters. In effect, they are rotten boroughs, sending to Congress (and the state legislatures) hard-left Democrats who would not be viable in normal districts.

Compare, for instance, the 2012 results for Lucille Roybal-Allard (Planned Parenthood rating 100 percent, ACLU 100 percent, Heritage Action 0 percent, NumbersUSA F–), who represents an immigrant-heavy district in Los Angeles County, with those for Steve King (Planned Parenthood 0 percent, ACLU 0 percent, NRA 100 percent, NumbersUSA A+), whose Iowa district has few immigrants. Each had a competitive opponent (Roybal-Allard’s was another Democrat, because of California’s new election rules), and yet the total number of votes cast, for all candidates combined, was more than three times greater in King’s district than in Roybal-Allard’s, because there are simply fewer U.S. citizens there. Passage of an amnesty/increased-immigration bill would create even more districts like Roybal-Allard’s.

Finally, the Senate bill’s increased importation of poor people from abroad would exacerbate the social and economic problems the statist Left uses as justification for its positions — and the worsening of these problems would make voters who aren’t even thinking about immigration more receptive to statist solutions.

For instance, one-third of all children in poverty in the United States live in immigrant households. Nearly half of immigrant families earn less than 200 percent of the poverty level, which is where many means-tested programs kick in. It is thus no surprise that immigrants are half again more likely to use welfare than the native-born, with a majority of households headed by immigrants from Latin America using at least one taxpayer-funded welfare program. What’s more, immigrant families account for nearly a third of those who don’t have health insurance and more than two-thirds of the growth in the uninsured over the past decade.

Even if none of these clients of big government ever vote, they (and the millions who would follow if Congress passes Obama’s immigration agenda) would inevitably strengthen the case in the minds of voters for a larger and more activist government. We can argue until we run out of breath for tax cuts, spending discipline, and smaller government, but mass immigration of low-income workers inevitably propels us a little farther down the road to serfdom.

For the Republican party to embrace amnesty and increased immigration would be to give away one of its best political issues. The public opposes increased immigration by margins of at least two to one. They might go along with an amnesty, but only if they are confident it won’t be repeated, and even then not enthusiastically.

GOP lawmakers have a choice: Go along with the party establishment and leadership in backing some version of Obama’s immigration agenda, and suffer continued defeat and ever-larger government; or break with the large donors, political operatives, and party panjandrums by making a populist, and popular, case for a sober, even-tempered restrictionism, one that warmly embraces new and prospective members of the American national community but is unapologetic about defending the interests of the American people.

— Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Mark Krikorian — Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.

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