Immigration, once again, despite huge GOP investment, does not perform for the GOP

For the second consecutive November election, the national GOP invested a great deal of money, candidate time and hope in using the issue of immigration to hurt Democrats. For the second consecutive election it did not deliver for the GOP (see this report from the National Immigration Forum for how the issue played in 2006).

Two headlines this morning tell the story:

"New York Democrats Say License Issue Had Little Effect"New York Times

"In the Ballot Booths, No Fixation on Immigration"Washington Post

The election results told us that while the American people are unhappy with our broken immigration system, they are looking for leaders willing to step up and solve the problem, rather than simply offering empty rhetoric and scapegoating. In each election, the GOP's strategy has been to inflame people's concerns about immigration, scapegoat immigrants themselves, while failing to offer a plan to fix it. In each election, Democrats advocated pragmatic solutions to a tough national problem and were rewarded on election day.

Looking ahead to next year, all of the Democratic candidates for President are united around a plan, called Comprehensive Immigration Reform, for fixing the broken immigration system. Comprehensive Immigration Reform has been one of the most bi-partisan legislative initiatives of recent years, as it has been enthusiastically supported by the Catholic Church, the Chamber of Commerce, many labor unions and immigrant rights groups, and political leaders as diverse as John McCain, George Bush, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. In its original form it passed the Republican controlled Senate in 2006, and in 2007 even virulent anti-immigration Senators like John Kyl accepted the need to create a path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants already here.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform takes a three-part strategy to fixing our broken immigration system. It would 1) toughen up on the border and in the workplace 2) deal with the future flow of immigrants more intelligently to reduce future illegal immigrants from coming into the country 3) legalize the work status and create an earned path to citizenship for those 11-12 million already here, working, paying taxes and raising their families.

This common sense, tough and smart plan to fix our immigration system is supported by the American people. As a new memo from the National Immigration Forum shows there is majority support for the framework of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, including granting the undocumenteds a path to citizenship. Most national polls taken in 2007 showed 60 % plus support for allowing undocumenteds to stay in the country.

What the elections in recent weeks have taught there are smart solutions to the fixing the immigration system that draw broad public support – such as the legislation known as Comprehensive Immigration Reform – and there are approaches that work less well. Of course this makes immigration reform just like any other issue facing American political leaders today.

While the Democratic candidates for President have stood hard and fast on the side of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, the Republican candidates for President - save John McCain - oppose this legislation and have failed to offer any kind of realistic reform plan. Given the early polling, we should expect a very significant debate next year on immigration, with one Party largely unified in their support of a plan to fix the immigration system, and one Party largely unified in their defense of an untenable status quo.

The Republican handling of the immigration issue has been a disaster for their Party. They have invested tens of millions of dollars in an issue that has not performed, and has worked to reinforce their image as a Party more concerned with politics than solving problems. It cost them their national Chairman, Mel Martinez, who resigned over how his Party was handling the issue. And it is has alienated, perhaps permanently, the fastest growing part of the American electorate, Hispanics. The national GOP has seen these kinds of politics play out before in California in the 1990s. Their demonization and scapegoating of immigrants turned California, the home of Nixon and Reagan, into one of the most Democratic and progressive states in the nation.

As NDN outlines in a new article in Mother Jones magazine and in a recent major report on the Hispanic electorate, the strategic missteps of the Republicans on the immigration issue may very well be the key to a new and durable 21st century majority for Democrats. Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to George W. Bush, makes a similar argument in a recent Washington Post column:

I have never seen an issue [immigration] where the short-term interests of Republican presidential candidates in the primaries were more starkly at odds with the long-term interests of the party itself. At least five swing states that Bush carried in 2004 are rich in Hispanic voters -- Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Florida. Bush won Nevada by just over 20,000 votes. A substantial shift of Hispanic voters toward the Democrats in these states could make the national political map unwinnable for Republicans … Some in the party seem pleased. They should be terrified.

NDN's hope is that in the years ahead the Republican Party will come to realize that their immigration strategy has been a strategic disaster, and decide to sit down and work with the Democrats to build a 21st century American immigration system that meets the need of our modern economy and does so in a way that is consistent with our values.