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Immigration a Tough Issue for Both Parties

The changing demographics of the United States suggest that there would be a lot of support for comprehensive immigration reform that includes legalization of undocumented immigrants who pay a fine and pay their taxes. But both parties have failed to present a comprehensive immigration bill so far and risk losing the support of a key swing voter group: Latinos.

That was the overall message of a panel of immigration experts, pollsters and advocates who convened for a lunchtime talk on the subject at the Center for American Progress today.

On one hand, as CAP fellow Ruy Teixeira pointed out (and has shown in a recent study), the growing Latino population, the aging of white conservatives and the increasing political role of the Millennial Generation (born between 1978 and 2000) suggests that the culture wars should become a thing of the past — and so should the opportunity for conservatives to use immigration as a wedge issue.

But it’s not so easy. In recent elections, conservative Republicans have continued to use fears of immigration to galvanize voters against Democrats, though they were rarely successful, noted Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice. Still, both Democrats and Republicans this year haven’t been willing to advance an immigration reform bill, and President Obama, despite election promises to Latino voters to advocate for reform in his first year in office, has admitted that’s not going to happen. And experts say it will only be more difficult as midterm elections approach.

“If immigration reform doesn’t get approved, it will it become a wedge issue,” predicted Anna Navarro, national co-chair of John McCain’s Hispanic Advisory Council and the lone Republican on the panel. “It will make a comeback. Not anti- and pro-, but rather, ‘you promised, and you didn’t deliver.’ It would be a good issue for Republicans.”

Perhaps, but it won’t lead to “a rush to the Republican party,” predicted Sharry. Still, it could dramatically reduce turnout among Latinos for Democrats in future elections.

Republicans are still identified as the restrictionists, though, said E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Washington Post. “As long as the loudest Republican voters are identified as restrictionist, the message Latinos get is that the Republican party is broadly hostile to them.”

But Democrats themselves are split on the issue, between more conservative Democrats and business groups who favor a large guest worker program, and more liberal Democrats and labor advocates who say that undermines American workers, and the answer is to create a path to citizenship.

“This is a very hard task,” said Dionne. “It’s not simply a matter of guts; it takes a lot of political and policy intelligence to put this thing together.”

Ultimately, all sides agreed that both parties need to unite behind bipartisan leadership and come to an agreement on this issue, or risk losing supporters.

“I think Republicans are waiting for this White House and this Congress to lead,” said Navarro. “The best thing Republicans can do is come up with an agreement and get rid of the issue once and for all. Get rid of the issue, and go back to what Ronald Reagan believed: that Latinos are Republicans, they just don’t know it yet.”

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