Immigration Reform 2013: Is Electoral Politics Trumping Good Policy?


With a bipartisan Gang of Eight leading a successful immigration charge in the Senate, I’m left wondering whether the 1,000-page bill enacts appropriate reforms or initiates the first step in an early Hispanic/Latino Get Out the Vote operation. It seems the answer is an amalgam of the former and the latter. 

Recently, Nancy Pelosi politely advised Republicans to support immigration reform if they knew what was electorally good for them. Based on the data, her collagen-coated remarks are not off base and Republicans are not oblivious — even if some of their remarks indicate otherwise — to the diversification of our great nation. In 2007 Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) helped craft the DREAM Act, which he and then Senator Obama both supported. As the 2008 presidential election heated up, McCain pulled (either willfully or reluctantly) away from the center, abandoned the bill he co-authored, and proclaimed border security to be an essential prerequisite before debate on any other immigration provisions could move forward. In McCain’s case, the necessity of reassuring the national Republican base he was conservative enough dictated his immigration policy position as well as his VP pick. 

Now McCain is a congressional thug with the other bad boys in the Gang of Eight, again aligning with his pre-2008 immigration position. Is McCain’s flip-flop borne out of campaigning on different electoral levels? While a myriad of factors are at play, it seems rather clear that McCain is a different conservative when vying for national versus state offices.

The political incentives behind pushing immigration reform are evident, but they are not the sole reason behind the current debate. The Senate’s proposal aligns with the majority of Americans' attitudes toward immigration reform. Based on several independent polls, the data suggests over two-thirds of the American people favor each of the five main immigration reform initiatives with a greater proportion supporting a path to citizenship before border security. (Note: In each poll citizens overwhelmingly support stronger border security, but when given a dichotomous decision pitting border security vs. path to citizenship they choose the latter over the former more often.) 

Analysis of those constituting the Gang of Eight suggests they have an incentive to lead the way on immigration reform at the state level: Menendez (D-N.J.), Rubio (R-Fla.), McCain (R-Ariz.), Flake (R-Ariz.), and Bennet (D-Colo.) represent some of the states with the highest illegal-immigrant populations — an estimated 5% or greater . Thus passing policy intended to provide a path to citizenship and then secure the border projects a pro-immigrant message to this growing constituency and to those sympathetic to it. Similarly, Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has come a long way from his seemingly anti-immigration remarks and bill proposal in 1993, represents a population with one of the highest percentages of illegal immigrants in the U.S.

In order to determine whether the Senate's attempt at immigration reform is a novel attempt at fixing a broken system or a campaign operation draped in a Senate resolution, you'd need to delve into the 1,000 page bill, reflect on the proposed remedies, and decide if the policy aligns with your values. Since none of us will come away with the same conclusion, I believe the Senate's Immigration reform is an amalgam of both. 

No immigration proposal will be an all-appeasing policy panacea. Part of a representative’s job description entails the duty to represent all their constituents. In order to successfully perform their job, they must provide a voice to the issues their constituents face, put forth policies aimed at remedying those problems, and above all else get elected in order to continue their service. You can’t successfully do the former two without securing the latter. Thus I’m alright with an immigration bill that's a mixture of policy to help fix a broken system, and attempts to win over a newly naturalized constituency group.