WASHINGTON — If elections are meant as an articulation of national will, then last week’s vote appears to have sent a message on the need for immigration reform - specifically what should be done about the estimated 12 million foreign nationals residing in the United States who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas.
No, Americans did not vote directly on immigration reform, and the topic was barely mentioned on the campaign trail by President Barack Obama or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. But the Republican Party clearly suffered at the ballot box as a result of its resistance to immigration reform.
During the presidential primaries, several Republican contenders took a hard line on the matter, blasting any measure that would provide a path to legal status as an amnesty for law breakers. Romney advocated a strategy of making life in America so difficult for illegals that they would opt to leave the country, or "self-deport."
Last Tuesday, Hispanic-Americans, who make up an increasingly powerful voting bloc, got their say in the matter. More than 70 percent of Hispanics voted for President Obama, a strong rebuke to Republicans. In the week since, many Republicans have gone out of their way to say that the party must change and embrace immigration reform if it is to remain competitive at the ballot box.
"The immigration debate… has built a wall between the Republican Party and the Hispanic community," said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation program. Graham noted that Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, and said that Republican rhetoric on immigration hurts the party in election cycle after election cycle. "It is one thing to shoot yourself in the foot [on immigration]," Graham said. "Just don’t reload the gun."
Graham pledged to push for immigration reform that was once championed by President George W. Bush. At the time, Bush got more support from Democratic lawmakers than members of his own Republican Party. Graham advocated reforms that mirror what President Obama has called for: enhanced border security and employee citizenship verification combined with a guest worker program and a path to legal status for undocumented workers. The path would include a fine for having broken U.S. laws and a requirement to learn English.
"Fix it in a way that we do not have a third wave of illegal immigration 20 years from now. That is what Americans want," Graham said. "They want more legal immigration and they want to fix illegal immigration once and for all."
Helping young illegals
Barack Obama pledged to fight for comprehensive immigration reform during his 2008 campaign. As president, he has issued policy directives to federal agencies on matters relating to immigration, but has yet to deliver on an overhaul of U.S. laws. Even partial measures, like allowing undocumented children of immigrants to gain legal status - known as the Dream Act - have failed in Congress. Deportations have risen under Obama and illegal border-crossings have fallen, likely the result of a weak U.S. economy.
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer says he is now more hopeful about reaching a deal with Republicans on immigration reform. "I think we have a darn good chance… to get something done," Schumer said on NBC’s Meet the Press program.
To be sure, not every Republican has expressed a new willingness to engage on the issue of immigration.
While House Speaker John Boehner now says that reform is "long overdue," other lawmakers remain steadfastly opposed to any measure that would, in their view, reward undocumented immigrants for having broken the law.
On his congressional website, Republican Congressman Steve King writes that "we only encourage illegal immigration by discussing amnesty for illegal immigrants living in the United States today. I adamantly oppose amnesty, regardless of the guise under which it is presented."