America is a nation of immigrants with an illegal immigration problem – a dilemma for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in the White House race, says John Avlon.
America is a nation of immigrants with an illegal immigration problem.
For the past four decades, immigration has been a political football, the subject of liberal pandering and conservative demagoguery in the culture wars. But now the calculus has changed, courtesy of the fact that 16 per cent of Americans are of Hispanic descent, making them the largest minority community in the country.
Politicians in both parties understand that there are pragmatic as well as principled reasons to deal with immigration, legal or otherwise. Attention must be paid.
That’s why President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both made pilgrimages to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials in Orlando, Florida this week. The Sunshine State is just one of a handful of key swing states with especially high Latino populations, the others being Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.
Republicans have some serious catching up to do with the Hispanic community.
The fact that party members are 87 per cent white does not help their ability to reach out.
Furthermore an Arizona state law, championed by conservatives, was depicted by opponents as a measure causing police officers to demand the papers of any person arrested whom they suspected of being in the country illegally.
Since many Mexican-American families have lived and worked north of the border for more than a century, the result was widespread protest and a Supreme Court challenge likely to be determined in the next few days.
George W Bush – former governor of the border state of Texas – was proud to have won 40 per cent of the Hispanic vote in his narrow victory over John Kerry in 2004.
He championed comprehensive immigration reform in his second term as president – but the bipartisan bill he backed died an ignominious death under attack from conservatives, who derided the measure as amnesty.
The Republican Party was stained by association and in the 2008 election, Barack Obama won the Hispanic vote by a 40 per cent margin.
Now polls show that Mitt Romney faces a similar deficit with Hispanic voters this year. It is partly a problem of his own making. In the Republican primaries, Romney rarely lost an opportunity to tack right on illegal immigration.
He slammed Texas governor Rick Perry for supporting the Dream Act – intended to provide a pathway to citizenship for the offspring of illegal immigrants brought to the US as children who graduate from school. He promised to veto this if it were brought to his desk as president.
All of which set the stage for President Obama’s audacious move earlier this month, announcing an executive order that would implement aspects of the Dream Act without the need to consult Congress. The order will stop the deportation of illegal immigrants under 30 who have graduated from high school and have no criminal record, or who have served in the military.
Obama’s policy shift followed a recommendation by Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio, a rising star in the Republican Party often mentioned as a possible vice-presidential nominee.
Romney, caught off guard, failed to say whether he would overturn the measure if elected.
The problem is that Romney now needs to appeal to a wider general election audience and cannot afford to alienate the Hispanic community entirely. The ads he’s run in the past, railing against illegal immigration, are already coming back to haunt him.
He must build on the support of Hispanic Republican statewide elected leaders like Rubio, Nevada’s governor Brian Sandoval and New Mexico’s governor, Susanna Martinez.
At the very least, he needs to establish a more inclusive tone, which is what he attempted to do in his speech to Latino officials.
Obama’s record on illegal immigration is more complex than the conventional political narratives. He has dramatically increased border security and the deportation of illegal immigrants, drawing the ire of some Latino activists. In saner political times, this bit of triangulation could be considered a political strength, a bit of Nixon-in-China – but not in this polarised year.
The presidential candidates’ political outreach to the Latino community came just as the Supreme Court is preparing to announce its decision on the Arizona law, promising to further inflame passions on both sides.
But dismissing the concerns of the Hispanic community is no longer practical for Republicans, just as Democrats are slowly realising they cannot ignore border security.
To heal this political rift, both parties will need to find a path toward increasing legal immigration and decreasing illegal immigration, while dealing with the illegals who have been hard at work here for decades.
Common sense and compassion may be aided by this inviolate principle: demographics are destiny.
John Avlon is senior columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast
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