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On immigration reform, voters' intensity matters

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010; 1:52 PM

When Democrats unveiled legislation Thursday to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of the party's leaders on the issue, declared, "Every poll that I have seen indicates that people want a comprehensive immigration bill."

She is correct. And yet her point is largely irrelevant.

The biggest barrier to the passage of such a bill remains the same as when Congress took up the issue in 2006 and 2007: the voters.

Latinos, who are among the loudest advocates for changes to current law, are a small percentage of the electorate (7 percent), while a much larger bloc of conservative Republicans remains strongly opposed to any liberalization of U.S. policy.

And the general public attitudes ignore a political reality: Intensity matters. The chorus of conservative voices who prompted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other Republicans to abandon support for the 2007 overhaul effort is not only intact but has become more influential within the GOP.

Polls have shown a majority of Americans support the immigration principles backed in 2007 by prominent figures in both parties, such as President George W. Bush and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.): increased border security and a path to legalized status for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. The legislation introduced Thursday follows that model: People now in the United States illegally would be eligible for legal status in eight years, as long as the federal government had increased overall border security by that time.

But the public support for those ideas is likely soft. Three years ago, opposition to immigration changes grew as Congress debated them.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the lead advocate for taking up the issue, repeatedly called Thursday for Republicans to join in working toward a bipartisan deal on immigration. Yet Reid surely recognizes that any Republican who joined a major immigration effort would likely face a primary challenge from the right.

Republicans have also noted that the political dynamics of immigration are very different for Reid. President Obama won Nevada in 2008, aided by a large turnout among Latinos (they made up 15 percent of the voters in the state and overwhelmingly favored Obama). Reid is also up for reelection this November, and a similar level of support could help his flagging campaign.

Elsewhere, though, Latinos are a sliver of the voting base for many Democratic politicians, and they are not as organized or united as conservatives who oppose immigration changes. A series of pro-immigration rights rallies Saturday is likely to have a limited impact, as they are taking place primarily in the districts of Democratic congressmen who backed the immigration overhaul in 2007.

Some advocates of immigration reform are effectively trying to shame their colleagues to support it, arguing a newly passed immigration law in Arizona simply requires federal action.

"We cannot have two classes of citizens in this country," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the only Hispanic member of the Senate. "We cannot have those who are detained unlawfully, even though they are U.S citizens, because they are caught up in this greater class of people who somehow becomes suspect."

But such comments are unlikely to push Congress on the issue. Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) both sounded like political commentators instead of party leaders as they weighed in on the chances of a bill emerging through Congress this week.

Obama spoke of the need of "political will" (translation: members of Congress ignoring angry phone calls to back an immigration overhaul), while Pelosi said it would require "presidential leadership" (translation: Obama either getting voters enthusiastically behind the bill or telling members to ignore the rhetoric of opponents, as he urged during the health-care debate). Both comments were a nod to immigration politics: For now, the loudest, most oppositional voices seem to have the most influence.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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