Immigration and the Midterm Elections

Immigration and the Midterm Elections

The economic climate and border security concerns have fueled the immigration debate in the U.S. congressional elections. This Backgrounder examines races where immigration is playing a role and the potential for reform legislation in the next Congress.

Last updated October 27, 2010 8:00 am (EST)

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Editor’s Note: This is part of a series on the foreign policy implications of the 2010 midterm elections.

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As the U.S. population of illegal immigrants swelled over the past decade, Democrats and Republicans have attempted various iterations of immigration reform with little success. After Arizona’s governor signed a controversial immigration law in April 2010--allowing law-enforcement officials to require paperwork proving people were in the United States legally--immigration reform was thrust back into the national conversation and became a flashpoint for the midterm elections. The current economic climate, coupled with increased violence in Mexico, particularly in border cities (AP), has turned many on the right against any non-enforcement reform. A number of Republican candidates, many of them Tea Party-affiliated, have pledged to introduce state laws similar to that in Arizona. Some have even expressed a desire to repeal the 14th amendment, which gives citizenship to any child born in the United States. Meanwhile, Democrats’ attempts at even modest immigration reform in the current Congress have been stymied, and if Republicans make the expected gains in the elections and capture one or both houses, any meaningful reform is also likely to be sidelined in the next Congress.

Immigration in the United States

Unauthorized workers in the United States have increased by roughly 32 percent* since 2000. The Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project estimates (PDF) as much as 28 percent of the nearly forty million people born outside of the United States could be unauthorized. That translates to more than eleven million unauthorized immigrants currently living and working in the United States, with roughly 60 percent of these immigrants coming from Mexico. A CFR Task Force Report found that: "Concerns over the costs of immigration inevitably rise either when the growth in the number of immigrants is large, or when the economy is experiencing a downturn. The United States currently faces both." Border violence is increasingly a concern as well. The murder of a southern Arizona rancher in March 2010, allegedly by an illegal immigrant, brought the reality of Mexico’s violence onto U.S. soil and was a flashpoint for the immigration debate (AZCentral).Violence in Mexico has reached alarming levels, with more than twenty-eight thousand drug-related deaths since 2007 (LAT), and border cities like Ciudad Juarez--which lies directly across the Rio Grande from El Paso, TX--boasting some of the most brutal attacks.

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Congresses and Parliaments

"Concerns over the costs of immigration inevitably rise either when the growth in the number of immigrants is large, or when the economy is experiencing a downturn. The United States currently faces both." -- CFR Task Force on Immigration

Even though illegal immigration remains a concern, a May 2010 Migration Policy Institute report that studied migration in light of the global financial crisis found that overall immigration to developed countries declined (PDF). At the U.S.-Mexican border, apprehensions dropped by almost 40 percent from 2007 to 2010, a factor attributed to both the recession and increased border security. And U.S. visas for highly skilled foreign workers are taking the better part of a year to be claimed. Decreases in skilled immigrants damage U.S. innovation, according to the Task Force Report, which also argues that immigrants’ language and cultural experiences are important to intelligence-gathering and fighting wars abroad. Additionally, immigration helps improve international opinion of the United States, which dropped markedly from 1999 to 2008, according to a Pew global attitudes survey. The Task Force found that "one of the most successful forms of public diplomacy has been to allow non-Americans to see what the United States has achieved."

Immigration Reform Attempts

In April 2010, Arizona’s Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed legislation giving law enforcement the ability to demand proof of immigration status in the course of their regular police work, including during random searches. CFR Senior Fellow Edward Alden says this law stems from a culture that has come to see border control as the primary means of dealing with immigration reform. Directly following events in Arizona, Senate Democrats released a proposal for comprehensive reform. This included tougher measures for border security and workplace enforcement, and a plan to pass the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) to grant citizenship to children of illegal immigrants who attended college or went into the military, and the AGJobs Act to reform the rules for foreign agricultural workers.

When it became clear that comprehensive reform was off the table due to the tough reelection climate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) attached the DREAM Act to a defense authorization bill. Cynics accused Reid, in a tough midterm-election contest with Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle, of catering to Nevada’s Hispanic population, which makes up 26 percent of voters. The bill didn’t pass, despite the fact that the DREAM Act previously received broad support from both parties, including former president George W. Bush. "For opponents of immigration reform, the DREAM Act is amnesty," says Alden. "It’s a smaller scale, but still amnesty."

Congressional Races

Many believe Reid’s attempt to pass the DREAM Act was the Democrats’ last chance for immigration reform, at least until after 2012, as the climate is expected to change dramatically in the next Congress. "Immigration reform advocates could see turnover in seventeen seats held by Democrats and Republicans [in the Senate] who, at one point, voted for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants," Politico writes. "Immigration advocates could start out in January with as few as thirty senators on their side."

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Even many Republicans, who once expressed support for the DREAM Act, are wavering. Politico says that five Republicans, who could have been considered swing votes on the issue, will not be part of the 112th Congress. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) is in a tight race against Republican Ken Buck, who’s argued against any form of amnesty for illegal immigrants. Polls show moderate Democrat Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who voted to open debate on immigration reform in the past, is likely to be unseated by Republican John Boozman, who has indicated support for amending the Constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship--as have a number of other conservative candidates for the Senate. "The 2010 class captures a sharp right turn in the GOP," writes Ronald Brownstein in the National Journal, who notes that as recently as 2006, twenty-three Republican senators voted for comprehensive immigration legislation that linked tougher border security, a guest-worker program, and a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants. "But now, all twenty GOP nominees who have taken a position say Washington should toughen border security before considering any broader immigration reform."

In the House, individual races have centered on immigration, particularly in border states like Arizona. Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, who represents a district in the southeastern part of Arizona, was an immigration moderate, but in this year’s race against Tea Party candidate Jesse Kelly, she’s touting her border security credentials (NPR).

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Congresses and Parliaments

Still, the midterm elections are unlikely to change much surrounding immigration law, according to CFR’s Alden. "Perhaps a Republican House would generate legislation like the [James] Sensenbrenner bill in 2005, which would have made supporting an illegal immigrant a felony," he says. "But in terms of what’s likely to actually happen as legislation, a Republican takeover is not going to matter that much."

State Races

"The logic of comprehensive reform is kind of a grand bargain in which there would be much tougher enforcement on the one hand and positive services on the other. But if one side is getting everything that it wants, then there’s no incentive for reform." -- Edward Alden

Politico found that twenty gubernatorial candidates support an Arizona-style law. Supporters hail from border states as well as states as diverse as Massachusetts and Georgia. In Nebraska, incumbent Governor Dave Heineman is running for reelection and promised that one of his first acts would be to press for an Arizona-like immigration law (NYT). Similarly, the CFR Task Force found that while large, coastal cities have faced--and dealt with--immigration challenges for years, the increase of immigrants across the country creates new tensions in smaller cities that are less prepared to deal with the repercussions.

Arizona’s Brewer saw her popularity dramatically increase (AP) after signing the immigration bill, with a double-digit lead over Democratic opponent Terry Goddard. In Colorado, Tom Tancredo, a former Republican congressman who is running as an independent, has risen to within four points of Democrat John Hickenlooper. Tancredo has made "immigration his signature issue" (DenverPost) and publicly aligns himself with Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is under investigation for racial profiling of Hispanics.

New Mexico and California, border states with large immigrant populations, are considered toss-ups in the governor’s races. In New Mexico, Republican Susana Martinez enjoys a slight lead over Democrat Diane Denish. In a state where 40 percent of the population is Hispanic and driver’s licenses and college scholarships have been issued to illegal immigrants, immigration issues are expected to play a large role (Stateline). Both Martinez and her running mate for lieutenant governor are Hispanic. "The most important dynamic is going to be: Can the Republicans take advantage of having two Hispanics at the top of the ticket?" current Governor Bill Richardson told Pew’s Stateline. "That’s probably never happened anywhere in the country." In California, Latinos make up 21 percent of the state electorate. Whether or not they go to the polls will strongly impact Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown against Republican Meg Whitman.

Hispanic Turnout

Democrats initially hoped that furor over Arizona’s law and the anti-immigration rhetoric it inspired would work in their favor in the midterm elections, driving more Hispanics to the polls. However, the Pew Hispanic Center found that registered Hispanic voters rank immigration fifth among their voting priorities, with education, jobs, and healthcare taking precedence. And while registered Hispanic voters overwhelmingly support Democrats, frustration at the Democrats’ inability to move a reform bill forward could keep Hispanic voters home in this election (NYT). Sixty-two percent of registered Hispanic voters identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party, while 25 percent leaned Republican. But the survey also found that registered Hispanic voters, particularly Democrats, were less likely to vote in this election than overall voters and also less than Hispanics who support Republicans. Fifty-one percent of registered Latino voters definitely planned to vote in this election, while 70 percent of all registered voters planned to turn out. A low turnout by Hispanic voters could have a detrimental effect on Colorado’s Bennet, as well as races in Nevada, California, and Florida.

The Future of Immigration Reform

Two bills have been introduced that could be voted on by the Senate during the lame duck session. After the DREAM Act was defeated, Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced a comprehensive reform bill they have framed as a compromise. "It promotes jobs to help spur our economy, it supports families, it helps to bring undocumented workers out of the shadows, and it enhances our border security," said Leahy in a statement. And Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced a bill that "hugs the conservative line" (SaltLakeTribune) against undocumented workers and forces "police agencies to cross-deputize their officers as immigration agents or lose federal funding."

If the Senate is unable to pass comprehensive reform legislation in the lame-duck session, it is unlikely the next Congress will make any progress on the issue, particularly since the Democrats had a hard enough time garnering votes with a near-supermajority. Robert Rector, senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, believes that Republicans will probably push for stronger workplace enforcement measures, requiring the use of E-Verify. Other reforms like the DREAM Act "won’t move six inches," and he sees even border security as just "a public relations issue." Public relations or not, the Obama administration has focused intently on securing the southern borders--in the last year, the Department of Homeland Security reported that 393,289 aliens were deported, of which 32.6 percent* were convicted criminals (PDF). With this concerted focus, the Republicans are already getting the tough enforcement measures they’ve pushed for. "The logic of comprehensive reform is kind of grand bargain in which there would be much tougher enforcement on the one hand and positive services on the other, including legalization, more visas, and improvements in legal immigration," says CFR’s Alden. "But if one side is getting everything that it wants, then there’s no incentive for reform."

* Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated these figures.


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