The Political Inevitability of Immigration Reform

Nov. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Having helped power President Barack Obama to victory over Mitt Romney, Hispanic voters are suddenly the “it” demographic in U.S. politics.

Hispanics made up 10 percent of the total vote and gave Obama almost three votes for every one earned by Romney. Obama may even have won a majority among Florida’s Cuban voters, who were once a Republican mainstay. With more than 60,000 Hispanics turning 18 every month between now and 2016, we doubt many Republicans are still in denial about the demographic hole they’ve dug for themselves. The question is, what will they do about it?

Obama has every incentive to pursue comprehensive immigration reform to provide pathways to legal status and citizenship for the nation’s roughly 11 million illegal immigrants. He has campaigned for it, and a crucial constituency demands it.

According to exit polls, 65 percent of voters support giving illegal immigrants in the U.S. a chance to apply for legal status. In a closely divided nation, that counts as a convincing supermajority. The Dream Act, which would ease the way to citizenship for young illegal immigrants who attend college or enlist in the military, should be part of a reform package, along with more visas for high-skills immigrants.

Republicans have two options. They can join the White House in shaping immigration reform, all the while knowing that the president will get the lion’s share of credit. This is politically unappealing in the short term, which is certainly one reason Republicans have resisted it. However, the alternative promises even more dispiriting political consequences.

If Republicans again oppose immigration reform, they risk cementing their reputation as obstructionists and, in the process, tightening the Democrats’ hold on a large and rapidly growing constituency. This is tantamount to political surrender, if not suicide. It would be a terrible outcome for the country and a self-inflicted wound that could hobble national Republican campaigns for years to come.

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner seems to recognize that. “A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I’m confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all,” he told ABC News yesterday.

The U.S. needs sensible immigration reform to rationalize a system that serves no one’s interests well. It also needs its two political parties to compete for votes not along racial lines but across them. Republicans have long maintained that Hispanics, who are often socially conservative, mesh naturally with the Republican base. Yet it is the job of political parties to sell themselves to voters and win their support. Republicans have largely failed to do that with Hispanics, blacks or Asian-Americans. (The latter two groups gave Obama an even more lopsided share of their votes than Hispanics did.)

Immigration reform is important for the nation’s well-being; resolving it will improve relations with an important trading partner, Mexico, and with other neighbors in a rising region. It will also help a troubled economy. Standard & Poor’s has found that cities with high immigration levels show improvements in credit ratings, tax bases and per-capita incomes. High-skills immigrants, meanwhile, not only increase productivity but also generate jobs.

Reform would also improve the quality of our politics. True, in the short term reform would probably benefit Democrats. In the long run, however, it might prove to be a lifeline for Republicans.

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