Will the GOP's Newfound Clout Kill Immigration Reform?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Tamar Jacoby is the president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a nonprofit that organizes the business sector around immigration reform. New America Media editor Sandip Roy interviewed her about the impact of Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Roy: Is the new composition of the House and Senate bad news for immigration reform?

Jacoby: I don’t think it’s necessarily as bad news as many people are imagining. A lot of people are saying, “Republicans -- they don’t like immigrants, there’s no hope anymore, we might as well jump off the bridge.” I think there might be some saving grace in the fact that we have a more evenly divided Congress now. That means both parties have to work together more effectively in order to get anything done. I think that might work well for immigration reform.

Roy: But is there appetite for immigration reform? Especially given that many of the Tea Party candidates campaigned on anti-immigrant platforms?

Jacoby: I am not saying Republicans are chomping at the bit to get to immigration reform. There’s no question Sharron Angle and Sen. [David] Vitter [R-La.] ran very nasty ads. But some of the more extreme candidates were defeated.

Let’s look at some of the incoming senators, [Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.]: I am not saying they will turn into Sen. Kennedy overnight on immigration, but they might be people we can work with. We don’t know how well Democrats and Republicans can work together. They were not able to in the last Congress at all. But now they have more of an incentive to work together.

Roy: You yourself identify as Republican. What will be the challenge for the Republican Party now that it has this new crop of members elected with the support of the Tea Party?

Jacoby: I think there will be a struggle for the soul of the Republican Party. The Tea Party will certainly have an influence, but there are still plenty of centrists.

The real challenge for the Republicans is the Latino vote. This election was a kind of kick in the pants for Republicans from the point of view of the Latino vote.

Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. If you look in California, I think it was [about] 80 percent. So there is a warning here for Republicans saying if you don’t pay attention to us we are not going to vote for you.

But three important Latino Republicans got elected: the senator from Florida, Marco Rubio; the governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez; and the governor of Nevada, Brian Sandoval. So there is also some light at the end of the tunnel here for Republicans because some important young Latino Republicans got elected saying this is winnable -- try for these voters.

I think the big question to watch is how the Republicans respond to these two things – one is a kick and one is a carrot.

Roy: What about Jan Brewer’s success in Arizona? Russell Pearce, who authored SB 1070, the controversial immigration law, has been chosen the Senate President there. What lessons will Republicans draw from that?

Jacoby: We know that the Arizona bill was popular. Sixty percent of voters in every poll supported it. Nobody doubted that Jan Brewer was going to win. What we’ve seen in the polls is that people definitely want enforcement. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are anti-something else, something broader and more comprehensive. I am not predicting that we will pass McCain-Kennedy next week, but what I am saying is we might try and figure out what they might pass.

Roy: But if they do pass anything, will it be comprehensive or would something piecemeal be more feasible even though passing the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill failed?

Jacoby: By the time the DREAM Act came up in the last Congress, cooperation between Democrats and Republicans had basically shut down. Republicans knew they were being asked to sign on to a Democratic deal that Democrats were going to try and get credit for. Democrats would present it to the world as something they did in spite of Republicans rather than with them.

My point is: In the next Congress, could they start from scratch in a more equal way and come up with something that they could both get credit for? That’s what [the McCain-Kennedy bill on immigration] was. They started to work behind the scenes together. The question is can that happen again. If it does happen it will be very enforcement-heavy.

The Republicans will want all kinds of enforcement that will make Democrats uncomfortable. But bills like these work when both sides hold their nose but say there’s still enough here to make it worth it.

Roy: Given that a lot of the Republicans were elected specifically to block President Obama, will they be in any mood to compromise?

Jacoby: Remember 1995. Republicans were elected because they promised to block President Clinton. But what happened? They went to Washington, sat down with President Clinton and came up with some landmark legislation.

Both parties may come back in a much more finger-pointing polarizing mood. That’s what most pundits are predicting. But I am looking at the possibility of two things. One is when there is a super majority you don’t have to cooperate with the other side. When you have an evenly divided Congress you have to cooperate.

The other thing we have going for us is that 2012 is a presidential election year. And both parties know that they can’t get elected without Latino voters. And those are two strong incentives.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying, “Let’s put the champagne on ice.” I am just saying it’s still within the realm of possibility. Let’s not give up the day after Election Day.


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