Shannon K. O'Neil, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program
Immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship would have sweeping effects on the lives of the estimated eight million undocumented Hispanics living within the United States. But it would not have an acute, immediate effect on U.S. politics.
This is mainly because it would likely take over a decade before any former undocumented immigrant could apply for U.S. citizenship and thus gain the ability to vote. And even then it is unclear how many Hispanics would actually naturalize. If history is any guide, only one third of eligible Mexicans (by far the largest immigrant group) have applied for citizenship in the past decade.
For potential voting power and political heft, the quicker and more substantial changes will come from U.S. demographic trends—where Latinos are the fastest growing group in the United States. Going forward, eight hundred thousand Latinos will turn eighteen each year, and by 2030 there will be some sixteen million more Hispanics eligible to vote—more than double today's numbers.
Comprehensive immigration reform would likely lower the vitriol in the public debate concerning immigrants and Hispanics more generally. By resolving the highly contentious issue of immigration policy, U.S. politicians of all stripes could more easily focus on wooing the growing Latino electoral base—turning to issues of economics, healthcare, schooling and the like, which polls show are at the top of Latinos' priority lists.