Why This Round of Immigration Reform Is Different

Because the immigrant rights movement is ready, says Pramila Jayapal. We've deepened, grown--and built strength out of previous losses.

By Pramila Jayapal Jan 16, 2013

Senior Administration officials told The New York Times this week that President Obama intends to move an "ambitious" and comprehensive push for immigration reform through Congress in the coming months. Four years ago, it was a very different situation. Progressive groups–dizzy from the win of the first African-American president and his preacher’s call for change–had a long list of competing priorities for the president, with the economy and health care winning out. Understanding how immigration reform "earned" its way to the top of the progressive agenda should shape the movement’s strategy in the coming months.

Two major changes have taken place. First, the movement has grown in numbers and matured in sophistication, generating a new collective urgency among liberals on this issue. Second, the combination of demographic change and growing immigrant power have challenged Republicans, in particular, to get behind reform. How well the movement optimizes these trends will be key to getting the best reform possible and capitalizing on the unprecedented opportunity to win immigration reform in 2013.

Many have pointed out the demographic shifts that helped President Obama win in 2012. Few have focused on the effectiveness of immigrant organizing that actually mobilized those constituencies into action.

After years of warnings to both parties that immigrant voters would eventually show their power at the voting booth, immigrant rights groups delivered in 2012. Largely scorned or ignored by Republicans and many Democrats, these groups applied the lessons of multiple painful losses to build a stronger, more politicized and more engaged base of immigrants. They translated big one-time rallies into a real ground game: registering hundreds of thousands of new immigrant voters, training thousands of young leaders, and creating committed alliances and coalitions. Alliances with larger mainstream organizations, businesses and religious institutions were carefully built to expand the tentacles of the immigrant rights movement.

All of this painstaking work culminated in a last pre-election surge of momentum when courageous DREAMers captured the nation’s imagination with their storytelling, determination and organizing, and landed on the cover of Time magazine.

At the same time, journalists and researchers exposed the jaw-dropping extent of deportations (almost 400,000 in 2011 alone) and its effects. In January of last year, Colorlines.com’s publisher, the Applied Research Center released a report estimating that up to 15,000 children of immigrants faced the risk of being trapped in foster care over the next five years due to detention or deportation of a parent. Two months later, Amnesty USA released a report about violations of human rights in the Southwest region. And just this month, Migration Policy Institute released a report estimating that the U.S. government spent an astounding $18 billion on immigration enforcement in 2012, more than the combined amount spent on the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshal Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The growing visibility of the issue and the effectiveness of the movement have together generated new commitments from both the left and right flanks, and helped solidify public opinion on the need to deal with the issue.

MomsRising, a one million member strong organization of moms across the political spectrum, recently did an immigration blog carnival, featuring posts from different progressive leaders from NAACP’s Ben Jealous to Arianna Huffington. According to Mary Olivella, chief strategy officer at Mom’s Rising, the blog carnival was designed to reach the "growing number of women in our membership who recognize that immigration is a women’s issue and want to get involved."

In December 2012, the National Immigration Forum pulled together an impressive coalition of "Bibles, Badges and Businesses"–leaders from faith, business and law enforcement. The gathering included Republicans and Democrats who came together to pressure Congress and President Obama to take up immigration as the first issue of 2013.

In Arizona, the vanguard of anti-immigrant state legislation, a bi-partisan group called the Real Arizona Coalition has pulled together its own plan for immigration reform. Although many immigrant advocates may disagree with pieces of the Real Arizona plan, the fact that the plan includes legalization for undocumented immigrants signals an enormous step forward.

The growing immigrant electoral power has affected both parties, with Republicans clearly facing the most dramatic crossroads.

Democrats watched Latinos and Asians in Florida, Nevada, Virginia and Colorado deliver those states for President Obama. Latinos and Asians totaled a combined 13 percent of the electorate and voted for Obama at 71 percent and 73 percent, respectively. Democrats looking a decade into the future saw the potential of other states like North Carolina, Arizona and Texas. Even pre-election, the thunderous applause greeting the undocumented student on prime-time stage at the Democratic National Convention gave reassurance to nervous Democrats that courageous acts on immigration could be both morally right and good for the party.

President Obama has repeatedly made statements that make it clear he intends to make immigration reform a top priority, and he will likely unveil his vision and make his case before the American people in his State of the Union address. Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Michael Bennett of Colorado, have been quietly working behind the scenes to prepare for a debate and draft the beginnings of a proposal.

Republicans watched the elections unfold and began damage-control efforts almost immediately. House Speaker John Boehner took a U-turn from 2007, when Fox News reported that he called the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill a "piece of shit." In a 2012 post-election interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News, Boehner said he was "confident" of a deal on immigration. It is "an important issue that I think ought to be dealt with," Boehner said.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham was most vocal, even just before the election, on how the GOP was catering to a dwindling minority of "angry white guys." The GOP conversation on immigration became increasingly public, with key Twitter accounts showing the internal push towards immigration. Leading Republicans from Rupert Murdoch to Sean Hannity have not only put forward immigration as a political imperative but have also called for a change in tone. CNBC’s Larry Kudlow tweeted that the GOP needed to "restore its soul on immigration," capturing a deeper recognition within the party that Republicans needed to be politically smarter and also….well, nicer.

Republicans are now in a bind. Immigrant voters will likely be unsatisfied with a halfway solution such as that proposed by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. Rubio’s proposal has been for a DREAM Act "lite" with legal status but no pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, and no relief at all for parents of undocumented kids. At the United We Dream Congress held soon after the election, DREAMers made a big shift in making clear that a deal that took care of them but not their undocumented parents would be unacceptable.

Moreover, while individual Republican House members may still be in districts where immigrant-bashing plays well, the party’s future is clearly at stake. It remains difficult to see a future for the GOP without a significant nod to immigrant voters in the form of immigration reform. Boehner’s recent abandonment of the "Hastert Rule"–requiring a majority of Republicans support a bill in order to bring it to the floor–may well signal the path for how an immigration bill gets out of the House. While it’s unlikely that the House would pass a particularly good bill, a good Senate bill and a good negotiation between the two chambers could provide the ticket for the much-needed and much-delayed immigration reform.

This combination of immigrant rights organizing and changed political rhetoric has shifted public opinion. Americans seem more certain than ever before that we need a good process by which people can come and stay in America. In December 2007, only 49 percent of American voters supported legalization and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. In December 2012, the Center for American Progress did a polling round-up that showed significant public support. In a national Bloomberg News poll, 57 percent of Americans believed the President Obama had a mandate to "overhaul immigration law to provide a path to legal status." Only 38 percent disagreed. ABC News had a national post-election poll showing the same general population result and support from 65 percent of young voters. In election day exit polling, 65 percent of all Americans said that undocumented immigrants should be "offered a chance to apply for legal status."

Whether it’s weariness with the ugly tone of the debate to date, or people recalling the immigration stories of their own families, a set of what Malcolm Gladwell calls "mysterious" sociological changes seems to have converged to create a potential magical moment of change. If we truly have reached the tipping point for immigration reform in America, maximizing these assets of organized immigrant power, an emerging consensus across political lines, and a new imperative for Republicans, provides our best shot at getting the reform we need.

Pramila Jayapal is a distinguished fellow at University of Washington Law School and a distinguished Taconic fellow at Center for Community Change.