Pop Quiz: What Cuts the Deficit and Mobilizes the Base?

Pop Quiz: What Cuts the Deficit and Mobilizes the Base?
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Give up? We thought so. The answer? Immigration reform.

That’s right. Too many in the political class are looking in the rear-view mirror when it comes to immigration reform. Despite a number of election cycles in which old presumptions were proven wrong, some still believe comprehensive immigration reform mobilizes the right, saps independent support, and makes Latino voters shrug.

So here’s a political mind-bender for you purveyors of outdated conventional wisdom: Immigration reform divides the right, wins over the center, and mobilizes Latino voters. Oh yeah, and it will cut the deficit.

Like all political conversations these days, let’s start with talk of the tea parties. Without a doubt, they have the political class captivated. We immigrant advocates learned this lesson the hard way. On March 21, over 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall in D.C. to call for comprehensive immigration reform--the largest rally of the Obama era. But the media barely noticed. They were focused on a couple hundred protesters at the Capitol. Apparently, a few angry people screaming and spitting is more newsworthy than nearly a quarter of a million members representing the fastest-growing group of new voters in the country.

Isn’t an immigration reform debate going to generate more fury among Tea Partiers than health care did? A new poll by the Winston Group, a Republican firm, finds that “the tea party movement is largely motivated out of economic and fiscal concerns” and not immigration issues. According an analysis by Noah Kristula-Green of FrumForum:

If Obama decides to tackle immigration reform next, some have wondered what the tea party response would be. Interestingly, it may not be an issue for most rank and file tea party members. When asked whether immigration was an issue that motivated how they voted, tea parties responded that it was just as low on their priority list as the average population. They also gave “cracking down on immigration” as a “best” way to create jobs nearly same weight as the average voter—which is to say, not as much weight as tax cuts or developing energy resources.

Implication: Some have argued that if the Democrats move to immigration reform, that the tea party movement will reveal itself to be driven by anti-immigrant sentiment. The data does not suggest that this should be expected.

Add to this that Tea Party leader and FreedomWorks chairman Dick Armey wants noted immigrant-basher and former Congressman Tom Tancredo out of the Tea Party for “his harsh and uncharitable and mean-spirited attitude on the immigration issue.”

So, while the DC-based chattering class is in a frenzy over the tea partiers, there is another political force that is likely to play a bigger role – in 2010 and beyond.

Many Democrats still don’t get it. Scared or reluctant to take on comprehensive immigration reform, some argue that Latinos have nowhere to go and will turn out for Democrats regardless of whether they do push reform or not. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. According to the latest DailyKos/Research 2000 tracking poll, the percentage of Latinos likely to turn out in 2010 lags far behind all voters, all Democrats, and all Republicans by an average of 10%. It was much worse before health-care reform passed. But imagine how those numbers would go through the roof if immigration reform were to pass.

For those yet to be convinced, take the advice of two D.C. insiders: Stan Greenberg and James Carville. Just last week, the duo told a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that passing immigration reform would be a smart move for Democrats:

Both pundits (and former Clinton advisors) thought that Democrats should take on immigration as soon as possible, despite the general wisdom that legalizing illegal-immigrant workers while so many are struggling to find jobs would be a less-than-ideal move. It divides the Republicans more than Democrats, they said, and anything that can show party solidarity is a “big winner for us.”

What’s more, over the weekend, one of the pundits who helps define Washington’s conventional wisdom--the Washington Post’s David Broder-- examined the growing power of the Latino vote. It’s worth a read for every politico who is thinking about the future:

According to the latest Census Bureau forecasts, Texas will be the main winner of new House seats, with four new districts. Single-seat gains are forecast for Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Washington, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. How many of those districts will be controlled or influenced by Hispanics will depend on who draws the lines and how they are constructed. But most of those states, and especially Texas, have seen big Hispanic population growth.

And this quickly-growing Hispanic population expects immigration reform. Janet Murguía, the President of NCLR, the nation’s largest Latino advocacy organization, told Broder, "As long as the immigration issue is unresolved, we feel under threat."

Murguía is right. This is why immigrants and their advocates gave Washington 200,000 good reasons to act, as President Obama has promised, “this year.”

Now, imagine you’re a Republican strategist, and you read Greenberg and Carville’s advice, Broder’s piece, the recent article in the Houston Chronicle entitled “Are Texas' Hispanics ready to go Democrat?” It’s enough to turn a red-faced operative blue.

After all, if Texas follows California from red to purple to blue, how exactly will Republicans ever win the White House again? The article paints the future:

The numbers are formidable. Hispanics made up 31 percent of the Texas population in the 2000 census and will likely be 36-37 percent in 2010.

Hispanic voter turnout in Texas grew by 31 percent between the 2000 and 2008 elections. At the same time, Hispanics make up only about 20 percent of registered voters in Texas and only 12 percent to 14 percent of the total vote.

The winds of change are likely to become a political tornado in short order.

Okay, so tea partiers are divided and Latinos are ready to define America’s political future. But doesn’t immigration reform backfire with non-Hispanic swing voters?

No. In fact, it’s much more popular than the chattering class tends to believe. Polls consistently show that at least two thirds of voters support reform with a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the U.S. without legal status--and support cuts across party lines. Polls confirming this come out regularly. In California, where there are competitive races for Governor and Senate, a recent Los Angeles Times/USC poll found two-thirds of voters support some version of comprehensive reform, despite the current economic woes in the state. Meanwhile, the two Republican candidates for Governor are pushing each other further right – and further away from majority opinion in the state – with each passing day of their primary race.

Now, for the icing on the cake? Immigration reform is one of the few pieces of legislation that actually decreases the federal deficit.

Recent economic analyses show that immigration reform would add $1.5 trillion to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) over 10 years. Pursuing a hard-line immigration agenda, on the other hand, would mean a whopping $2.5 trillion loss to our GDP over ten years. That adds up to a swing of $4.1 trillion.

Meanwhile, deporting the 11 million undocumented immigrants who wish to become full taxpayers and full contributors to our society would cost $285 billion in taxpayer dollars, while legalizing those same immigrants would rake in an estimated $66 billion in additional revenue over ten years.

So, in light of these political and economic facts, what will happen this year with immigration reform? Will Democrats take advantage of a historic opportunity to fight for voters who turned out for Democrats in record numbers in 2008 on the promise of change, including immigration reform? And will Republicans reopen diplomatic relations with a population that currently believes, with good reason, that most Republicans hate them? The answer to both of these challenges is actually the same: both parties should get behind bipartisan immigration reform so it’s enacted this year.

As one of the speakers at the March 21 rally said, it’s time to wake up and smell the cafecito. The time has come for Democrats to get to work passing a fiscally responsible proposal that would expand the tax base; level the playing field for American workers and honest employers; and, oh yeah, mobilize new voters to turn out for them this fall. The time has come for Republicans to sue for peace, take some credit for passing immigration reform, and compete for the fastest-growing group of new voters on other issues.

But that would require tapping into the new conventional wisdom.

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