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December 18, 2014

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POLITICS:

Will impasse on immigration galvanize Hispanic voters, or leave them apathetic?

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Nick Ut / AP

Immigrant families and children’s advocates rally in response to President Barack Obama’s statement on the crisis of unaccompanied children and families illegally entering the United States, outside the Los Angeles Federal building Monday, July 7, 2014. A top Obama administration official says no one, not even children trying to escape violent countries, can illegally enter the United States without eventually facing deportation proceedings.

Former President George W. Bush said he would get it done, but buckled to congressional roadblocks. President Barack Obama made it part of his campaign platforms in 2008 and 2012, only to hit similar barriers.

Immigration reform has been promised, especially to Hispanic voters, numerous times by numerous politicians but never delivered. The issue has become the muddy rut from which neither party can escape, and the implications of the ongoing impasse could be felt the most in 2016.

“Hispanic voters are frustrated, like America as a whole is frustrated,” said Ronald Najarro, Southwest region spokesman for the Libre Initiative, an organization partly funded by Charles and David Koch that is pro-immigration reform and promotes conservative economic policy to Hispanics.

“I think there is disappointment with the Obama administration, and then there is anger and frustration toward Republicans,” he said. “Who is going to be affected most long term if things don’t change? Probably the GOP.”

A surge in the flow of unaccompanied children and families across the U.S.-Mexican border in the first half of 2014 refocused the debate but led to little action in Congress before the August recess.

Now, those on the ground say Hispanic voters have become disenchanted. That development could result in lost votes for the political parties, with the possibility of voters becoming apathetic enough to stay away from the polls or, alternatively, upset to the point of rallying against incumbents who helped cause the inertia.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., expressed little hope for another potential outcome — sweeping reform of the immigration system. Heck is a rarity among House GOP members in that he's expressed a willingness to work on compromise legislation that would offer residency to the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.

“Unfortunately, I’m much more pessimistic than I was,” said Heck, who recently voted for a House bill to address the influx at the border and against a bill that would end the Obama administration’s deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA) program.

“I still think there’s opportunity to try to get something done, but I’m not holding out a lot of hope in trying to get something meaningful done in the way of immigration before the end of this year. … There’s a lot of mistrust on both sides of the path forward.”

Democrats fear Republicans will drop other aspects of reform if they first allow a vote on a border security measure alone, Heck said. On the other side, members of the GOP fear the Obama administration will take “poetic license” that could lead to a reform package not being implemented as written.

“(The Republicans) have no solution. Zero. They don’t come up with anything,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said about the impasse. “Some have said, ‘Well, let’s do it on a piecemeal basis.’ That won’t happen. The only way we’re going to get this done is comprehensive immigration reform.”

The situation has left both parties squirming. The Democrats have been unable to deliver on a campaign promise, while Republicans cannot seem to get past an issue that has dogged them for multiple election cycles.

In a GOP self-critique of the 2012 election, the Growth and Opportunity Project report, the authors said it was time for the party to embrace immigration reform and move to a compromise position. Sheldon Adelson, a major GOP donor, wrote an op-ed for Politico in June saying Republicans should lead the reform effort.

Meanwhile, immigration reform advocates like the National Council of La Raza are pressuring Obama to exercise more executive changes, such as deferred action, at the risk of further entrenching members of the GOP who are most resistant to reform.

Heck, who previously voted with his party twice to defund DACA, said he voted no in July when the issue came up again because after two years in place it would be wrong to expose the participants to deportation. But he still objects to Obama’s use of executive authority to get it done.

“We’ve taken them out of the shadows, and I just could not in good conscience say: ‘We’re going to push you back into the shadows,’” he said.

Reid said Obama was justified to act, and it would be understandable if he did more in the future, given the quagmire in Congress. Organizations like the Libre Initiative, Reid said, are giving the false impression that Republicans support reform.

“The Koch brothers here in Nevada and around the country are spending huge amounts of money with these phony organizations trying to let people know that they’re supportive of immigration reform, which is a joke,” Reid said. “So, I’m a little concerned, but all of the polling indicates that the Hispanics know what’s happening. They’re not stupid.”

Polling shows, and the GOP report admits, that immigration is a “litmus test” issue for Hispanic voters.

Latino Decisions, a polling firm focused on Hispanic voter positions and opinions, found roughly two-thirds of Hispanic voters would open up to Republicans on other issues if the GOP stopped pushing for widespread removals.

“At this point Hispanic voters want some resolution to this,” said David Damore, a UNLV political scientist and Latino Decisions contributor. “They are tired of the legislative process, and are starting to tune the politicians out.”

In 2012, Hispanics were 10 percent of the national electorate and 18 percent of all Nevada voters. As a comparatively young demographic with an estimated half million Hispanics reaching voting age every year, the percentages should continue to grow.

Nationally, and in Nevada, the midterm elections may not indicate any repercussions from the Hispanic electorate, with few close races in the state and much of the focus nationally on House districts that do not reflect national demographics.

But in 2016, when the White House is open along with Senate seats in Nevada, Texas, Florida and Arizona, the ramifications could be profound.

The border crisis involving unaccompanied children roiled the debate on reform before the August recess, and the House passed two “symbolic” bills that will never make it to the Senate, Damore said.

“There is less opportunity to work back to the middle,” Damore said. “They talked about the piecemeal approach, going one bill at a time, but they haven’t even done that. It’s time to put up or shut up. … At the end of the day for Latinos, it’s about policy, not the politics.”

Current forecasts from Nate Silver predict the 2014 midterm elections will leave the House in Republican control and the Senate close to 50-50 with a slightly greater chance of a weak GOP majority.

With Obama in the last two years of his presidency, and Congress accomplishing little, Damore sees scant chance for accomplishing comprehensive reform before 2016.

The Libre Initiative says ideally Congress would pass a reform bill that includes a pathway to citizenship for those illegally in the country, but the organization is willing to accept legal status without the path to naturalization. Both parties could be served by an attitude of conciliation, Najarro said.

“In terms of the GOP I think a minority of the party, the most extreme 10 percent, is getting too much of the attention. They make the controversial statements that get all of the attention.” Najarro said.

Ebeth Palafox, the Nevada coordinator for the Hispanic civic engagement organization Mi Familia Vota, said Hispanic voters she talks to seem apathetic amid the gridlock. But that's about to change, she said.

“Come 2016 we have the possibility of a lot of political changes in the layout of Nevada, and nationally,” Palafox said. “It will be a lot easier to mobilize then, it will be easier to talk to people then, to register people then, because there is more visibility and more at stake. Then we’ll see the real ramifications of inaction.”

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