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Broken Borders

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How the Politics of Immigration Reform Have Changed

February 7th 2013

Border Patrol-Arizona

Last Fall, it would have been hard to imagine Republicans and Democrats working together to fix our broken immigration system. The country was locked in highly polarized discussions about a number of major issues and political dysfunction in Washington created little hope of action on this contentious subject.

But now we have leading Democrats and Republicans who have announced their support of a bipartisan reform package. With the Senate moving towards action, House Republicans indicating we should be open to immigrants, and President Barack Obama making immigration reform a top priority, the country appears close to taking meaningful action on this important issue. While there are many hurdles yet to overcome, it is important to note the dramatic changes in the politics of immigration reform that have unfolded in the past few months.

Romney Got Only 27 Percent of Hispanic Vote, Down From Bush's 44 Percent in 2004
The poor performance of Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election is the major driving force behind the changing dynamics of immigration reform. With Hispanics a growing percentage of the overall electorate (10 percent nationally) and its voters concentrated in key swing states, it is hard for the GOP to remain competitive in national races without a better showing among Latino voters. According to election exit polls, Latinos comprised 19 percent of the 2012 vote in Nevada, 17 percent in Florida, and 14 percent in Colorado.

Immigrants Have Moved into the Heartland and out to the Suburbs
The politics of immigration reform have been altered by where immigrants locate. As Brookings Institution demographer Audrey Singer has pointed out, new immigrants used to cluster more in coastal urban areas. However, in recent years, they have moved into the heartland of the United States and into suburban areas. This means that many Republicans and Democrats who previously had few immigrants in their districts and therefore faced no local pressure to address immigrant problems no longer are shielded from their districts. They are encountered the same complaints as elsewhere about a broken immigration system, difficulty navigating local services, and the need to help new arrivals get integrated into social and economic life.

White Percentage of the Vote Is Dropping
Republicans have done well nationally through an electoral coalition centering on white, male voters, but that is a shrinking part of the overall electorate. Whites comprise about 72 percent of GOP candidates are doing well with a declining part of the electorate and therefore need to think seriously about their long-term prospects. The Republican party clearly can continue to win Congressional races, but will have difficulty at the presidential level due to changing demographics. Latino voters care deeply about the importance of immigration reform, and must see changes not just in rhetoric but on policy from Republicans.

Progress on Border Security
After a decade of investments in border security, the U.S. Border Patrol reports sharp reductions in the number of people attempting illegally to cross the Southern border with Mexico. The agency has charted "intercept" data for several decades and the good news is that the number of illegal arrivals has dropped significantly over the past 30 years. Whereas the annual number of illegal immigrants arrested was 1.7 million in the mid-1980s, that figure dropped to 1 million in the late 1980s, 705,000 in 2008, 540,865 in 2009, 447,731 in 2010, and 327,577 in 2011. This shows how the country has made progress on securing its border with Mexico.

Businesses Are Stepping Up To Fight for Immigration Reform
We also are seeing renewed calls for action on immigration from leading companies being hurt by difficulty recruiting workers. This is true in the high-tech area where executives from Microsoft, Google, Alcoa, Intel, Facebook, Apple, eBay, and Amazon have complained about the need for more engineers and scientists and the challenges in growing their businesses under current immigration rules. But the problem is not unique to high-tech industries. Companies in agriculture, hotels, restaurants, and health care complain about the problem of finding workers and the problems it creates in their sectors. There are insufficient numbers of Americans willing to work in these areas and companies need people interested in doing those kinds of jobs. Meaningful immigration reform is vital to the long-term economy and national competitiveness.

Darrell M. West is Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, from where this article is adapted.


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