The Evolving Politics of SB1070, Arizona and Immigration Reform

In the last few days I've done a slew of interviews with reporters discussing the politics of SB1070 and the decision by the Department of Justice to declare the law unconstiutional.  The national GOP has gone into big time spin mode on this, declaring from the reporters I've spoken to the DOJ suit is political death for "Democrats in the West."   While that scenerio is possible of course, lets look at what we know about how this debate has played out in recent years. There two things we know for sure:

1) When Latinos are demonized by the GOP there is a backlash.  In California in the 1990s, and in national politics in this past decade, when Republican leaders launch a sustained anti-immigrant, anti-Latino Latinos respond, applying for citizenship in higher numbers, registering in higher numbers, voting in higher numbers, and voting aggressively against the Republican Party.  Given that Latinos now make up 15 percent of the national population, and large percentages of the voting population in major states - CA, FL, TX and key Presidential states - AZ, CO, NM, NV - a big shift in the Hispanic vote can dramatically alter the politics of a community, state and the nation. 

2) The Republicans have not shown that their anti-immigrant position works outside a Republican primary audience.   The polling on immigration has been consistent over the past five years.   About 15-20 percent of the country want the undocumenteds to leave and consider immigration a voting issue.  They are largely base Republican voters.  Hispanics too view immigration as a voting issue.  The rest of the country sees immigration as a second tier issue, trailing way behind more important issues like the bad economy, need for better health and foreign policy matters.  And for most of those who view it as an issue of secondary importance they are comfortable with the solution Congress has been proposing called comprehensive immigration reform (in this recent WaPo poll, for example, 57% support allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the US permanently while also giving majority support to SB1070).

So what this means in campaign terms is that a hard-line anti-immigrant stance can work well in a contested Republican primary - think Jan Brewer - but has not shown the capacity to motivate non-Hispanic general election voters in battleground races.  The Republican Party will have a hard time naming a single race the last several elections where a hard-line anti-immigrant candidate won purely on this issue, and virtually no GOP campaign has spent money on the issue in the last month of any race we've studied. In fact, I've argued before, that the emphasis the GOP has put on immigration has actually been a big negative with swing voters for it reinforces the worst attribute of the GOP of recent years - their willingness to put poliitics over problem solving.  For many their obsession with anti-immigrant politics looks feckless, partisan and helps reinforce their lack of seriousness as a party.  For while immigration matters, of course, it is just not as important as some of the more wild-eyed immigrant haters want to believe it is.  Most Americans are just way too smart for that.

Sometimes ithe anti-immigrant stance doesn't even work in a Republican primary audience.  In the 2008 Presidential election, the most liberal Republican on immigration, John McCain, won his party's nomination.  The anti-immigrant candidate, Tom Tancredo, never received more than 1% in any poll taken during the primary season.  And of course Senator McCain was then beaten by someone much more liberal than he on immigration reform, Barack Obama, who despite his pro-immigration reform stance received the largest vote share a Democratic Presidential candidate had received in 44 years. 

Unfortunately, Politico bought this GOP spin about how the GOP candidates will turn support of SB1070 into a winning regional issue and published this largely unsubstantiated and disapointing piece yesterday. Already, this morning we have a clear repudiation of the national GOP narrative in the largest state in the West, California, where Republican Gubernational candidate Meg Whitman has launched billboards in Spanish proclaiming her opposition to SB1070.  Newsweek has published this thoughtful essay making the case that the DOJ suit is smart politics for Obama. My gut is that this piece is closer to the truth than Politico's slightly hysterical initial take.

Whatever the politics of the DOJ suit are I think the government did the right thing.  Once SB1070 was passed, the federal government had to act.  If SB1070 succeeds we could end up with 50 different immigration policies in the US, not a single federal one.  The President was right last week to challenge Congress to quit kicking the can down the road on immigration reform and step up to build a better immigration system.  The Department of Justice was also right to challenge SB1070, a serious threat to the integrity of our federal immigration system. 

So what do we know about the politics of SB1070? Here is my take:

1) It will make it more likely that there is a large Latino vote against anti-immigrant candidates in the heavily Mexican-American West.

2) Outside of Arizona, I have serious doubts that a hard-line anti-immigrant stance will work for the GOP.  Most anti-immigrant voters in the West have already been motivated by many of the anti-Democratic messages of this cycle, and there just isnt a lot of data or experience to indicate that in this tough economy the GOP will be able to make the issue pop with non-Hispanic audiences beyond their base.  There is evidence and experience, however, which shows that if GOPers continue to talk about the issue deep into the fall it can actually hurt them, as it will help brand the GOPer as one those "more extreme" Republicans, a political brand which has been serially rejected by the American people over the past five years, and a positioning that today remains remarkably unpopular.

3) As the legal, economic and societal costs of SB1070 become better understood, it is very likely that the popularity of SB1070 - an extreme approach to a very real problem - will begin to drop.  From a policy standpoint SB1070 is a bad idea, and overtime I think most folks "in the West" will come to agree. 

4) The way the issue plays in each race in the West will, as Meg Whitman has shown, be determined by how each candidate plays it.   Democrats would be smart to hold firm on demanding a comprehensive national solution and not give into the early politics of this new post SB1070 environment.

That's it for now.  Thoughts welcome of course.  For more on these matters check out my first cut reaction to the DOJ suit and this backgrounder on NDN's work on immigration reform.

Talked Immigration, Arizona and "Anchor Babies" on Fox Today

Given the news that the Department of Justice has filed its suit against the new Arizona immigration laws, it was an interesting day to go on Fox News to talk about immigration. You can watch my segment, which included the well known anti-immigrant crusader Dan Stein from FAIR talking about changing the 14th Amendment and other fun matters, below and here.

In prepping for my segment I found this following passage from the FAIR website about "anchor babies:"

What Does This Mean?

Higher Taxes: The federal government has control over immigration law for the United States. By not correcting this mis-application of the 14th Amendment, the funds that state and local governments must provide to anchor babies amounts to a virtual tax on U.S. citizens to subsidize illegal aliens.

Disrespect for the rule of law: Congress, by failing to act on legislation aimed at correcting the interpretation of citizenship by birth, in effect rewards law-breakers and punishes those who have chosen to follow the rules and immigrate legally.The original intent of the 14th Amendment was clearly not to facilitate illegal aliens defying U.S. law and obtaining citizenship for their offspring, nor obtaining benefits at taxpayer expense. The United States is unusual in its offer to extend citizenship to anyone born on its soil. Other developed countries have changed their citizenship practice to eliminate the problems caused by the practice of birthright citizenship.[1] The anchor baby problem has grown to such large proportions that the United States can no longer afford to ignore it. The logical first step for correcting the problem is for Congress to adopt legislation clarifying the meaning of the 14th amendment.

(we've added the bold face here)

What struck me was how clear FAIR is in this passage that federal law trumps state law when it comes to immigration, and the proper course for those wanting a different immigration system in the US was to pressure Congress to act. This is of course is the same argument the President made last week in his American University immigration speech, and the same argument the Department of Justice made today in bringing suit against other FAIR-inspired laws in Arizona.

I hope those politicians in Arizona are aware of the real game FAIR is playing here. As we saw in the remarkable movie, 9500 Liberty, FAIR views political actors in the states as local chess pieces in a more national game of anti-immigration chess. As the movie details, the local community in Prince William County, VA who tried the FAIR-crafted "probable cause" statute (an ancestor to the current AZ law) saw their economy tank, racial polarization increase, forclosures skyrocket. The movie details how FAIR fed a group of ambitious conservative politicians a legal and political strategy which ended up backfiring on the local community, caused tremendous harm to the residents of the county, cost the local government a lot of money, and was ultimately reversed by the politicians themselves.

In Arizona we are starting to see the same thing play out. The economy and reputation of the state are being harmed. Racial discord is soaring. Local newspapers, police chiefs and businesses are fighting back against the law. And now the federal government is properly inserting itself into the debate, reminding those in Arizona that their law is, simply, illegal. Arizona cannot set its own immigration policy, just as it cannot craft its own foreign policy. Increasingly all this stuff around SB1070 may be, at the end of the day, a massively damaging escapade by a group of ambitious politicians in Arizona led astray in part by the Rasputin-like leaders of FAIR.

But what is so sad to me is that if the leaders of the Arizona effort had actually read FAIR's website they would have understood that even FAIR itself doesn't believe that the law the people of Arizona have passed is legal. Increasingly the nation and the people of Arizona will come see the passage of SB1070 and other legislation begin cooked up now (see the clip of my Fox debate today with FAIR about the legality of the 14th Amendment!) as another chapter in FAIR's grand and so far failed strategy to fundamentally change the immigration debate in America.

It is possible that a local court prevents a stay of SB1070, and it goes into effect on July 29th. But I think the die is cast here now. Eventually we will get a federal law and a new federal immigration system, and the sooner folks like Russell Pearce stop listening to FAIR's crazy and failed ideas and start working with Congress to construct this new law, the better off the nation and the people of Arizona will be. For as in Prince William County, my bet is that pretty soon the people of Arizona are going to want to find a way out of the mess created for them, and will begin to view this law much more negatively than in some of the early "sugar high" polls showing broad initial support.

Update - In the Fox News discussion today I read a portion of the 1st Section of the 14th Amendment. Here is the whole passage:

Section. 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Update 2, More on FAIR - Our friends at 9500 Liberty just released one of the most compelling parts of their remarkable movie. It comes in the latter half of the movie, when all of a sudden our understanding of how the debate around "probable cause" - essentially the same law as SB1070 in Arizona - came to Prince William. It was brought there by FAIR, a national anti-immigrant advocacy group, whose President Dan Stein I debated today on Fox, and who is featured prominently in the video below.

Please watch the video below my friends, for what you learn is that FAIR views counties like Prince William and states like Arizona as "laboratories;" they admit to being the "mad scientists" behind the spread of these strategies across the country; and they admit, on camera, to colluding with Republican politicians to use this issue to help them win elections, a particularly odd goal for a 501 (c) issue advocacy organization.

Why does this matter so much? For I hope the good people of Arizona understand that they are being used as a laboratory by a national anti-immigrant group, a group who has shown very little concern for the communities who've been torn apart by their divisive strategies in the past.

Statement on President Calderon's Visit to the White House Today

I released the following statement today:  

“On display today was a US-Mexican relationship perhaps deeper and stronger than any point in the history of our two countries.  The tireless efforts of the current administration and the Mexican government has created an atmosphere of mutual trust and understanding essential for the success of each nation in the 21st century.  This new sense of trust and true partnership will pay great dividends for the people of both countries for decades into the future.

At NDN/NPI we are particularly pleased to see that President Obama has continued to show support for Congressional action on immigration reform and is carefully reviewing the legality of SB1070. It is also heartening to see President Calderon weighing in respectfully but forcefully against SB1070.

We congratulate both President Obama and President Calderon for their success in ushering in a new and better day in this historic and vital relationship."

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