“I’ll have those n****ers voting Democratic for the next 200 years.”
Lyndon Baines Johnson on the 1964 Civil Rights Act
For a country that is so strongly devoted to equality for all its citizens, it seems ironic that our politics would be so concentrated on demographic groups. Policies are carefully subjected to polling, with displeasure in one voting bloc weighed against approval in another. Messaging (the political equivalent of marketing) is fine-tuned in focus groups before it ever sees the light of day. Polling is not issue-oriented but rather divides us into groups along lines similar to those defined by the 1964 Civil Rights Act: race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and etc. So, we speak of the Jewish vote, women’s vote, gay vote, union vote, African-American vote, and so on.
The Democratic Party has a very firm grasp of demographics. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition consisted of client groups (e.g., labor unions, blue collar workers, intellectuals, and minorities) that were united in their support of the New Deal. This began a tradition of the Democratic Party being a coalition of special interest groups. Many planks in the party platform (e.g., gay marriage, abortion, affirmative action) promote the agenda of these groups. Whether one considers this advocacy, as Democrats do, or pandering, as Republicans call it, the result is the same. Democratic politicians promote a group’s cause and, in return, the group votes for Democratic politicians. As indicated by the LBJ quote at the top of this column, Democrats have had the greatest success with African-Americans, who vote 90+% Democrat.
Hispanics are a growing segment of the American population and both parties understand the need to garner their votes. A prominent issue in this contest is immigration or more specifically, illegal immigration. The illegal immigration problem consists of two parts. What do we do with those illegal immigrants that are already in the country? What do we do about securing the borders and enforcing immigration law?
Based on national defense and equal protection concerns, many Republicans emphasize the need to control the borders, enforce immigration laws, and consider illegal immigration a legal infraction. Based on their advocacy for special treatment for client groups, many Democrats favor some variation of amnesty for illegal immigrants who are already here, and they see this as a winning stance with Hispanics.
Immigration Reform 1986 Version
President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986. This gave one-time amnesty to about 3 million illegal immigrants in exchange for the promise that efforts would be made to control our borders and that effective measures to prevent employers from hiring illegal immigrants would be put in place. These promises were never kept. Just as with tax increases granted on the promise of spending cuts, Democrats left Reagan and the Republicans holding the bag. The issue of illegal immigration remained unresolved.
Immigration Reform 2007 Version
President George W. Bush also made a concerted effort for immigration reform that addressed both border security and fair treatment of illegal immigrants already in the country. Negotiations between the parties were difficult and support was fragile. Democrats introduced five poison pill amendments. Among these was one cosponsored by Barack Obama that eliminated employers verification of citizenship status during the hiring process. Obama also voted in favor of all five poison pill amendments. Ultimately the bill failed largely because a number of Republicans could not support the bill as amended. One might say the poison pills worked.
Immigration Reform Obama Style
During his campaign, Barack Obama said immigration reform was a top priority and promised to address it during his first year of presidency. Despite controlling the White House and Congress, Democrats didn’t pass immigration reform. They didn’t even bring it up. Obama then proceeded in a fashion that, from a policy perspective, seemed schizophrenic. He turned a blind eye to sanctuary cities and prosecuted states that tried to enforce immigration law. On the other hand and with much less fanfare, he proceeded to deport illegal immigrant at a record pace. Various versions of the DREAM Act have been around since 2001 and have enjoyed some bipartisan support. Obama championed efforts to get it passed starting in 2009. Despite repeated attempts it failed to get through the Senate. Even when the Democrats had a supermajority in the Senate and some Republicans voted in favor of the bill, it did not pass because some Democrats voted against it.
In April, 2011 President Obama stated he could not circumvent Congress on the DREAM Act with an executive order. He explained, “There are enough laws on the books by Congress that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system that for me to simply, through executive order, ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as President.”
Despite these protests, on June 17, 2011 the Obama administration essentially enacted the DREAM Act by regulatory authority. Under the cover of discretionary enforcement of immigration law, deportation guidelines were promulgated that paralleled the provisions of the DREAM Act. The very DREAM Act that had been rejected by the Senate twice because some members of his own party wouldn’t support it. A breathtaking usurpation of power which, as time has passed, has looked more and more routine for this administration.
Immigration reform lay dormant until recently. In the Republican primaries, Newt Gingrich proposed comprehensive immigration reform but he fell by the wayside. Mitt Romney pulled ahead and he had an orthodox Republican illegal immigration stance emphasizing border control and rule of law. In April, Obama promised to address immigration reform during the first year of his second term, a promise that seemed as hollow as the one he made in 2008. But then Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), a reluctant frontrunner for the GOP vice president nomination, began putting together a reasonable alternative to the DREAM Act. He was making progress, hammering out details, gaining political traction, and putting together a coalition of support. Then yesterday, in what seemed to be a preemptive strike, President Obama signed an executive order to exempt certain young people from deportation that closely resembled the main features of the Rubio plan. On Fox News Special Report, Stephen Hayes made the intriguing statement that, behind the scenes, President Obama was discouraging Congressional Democrats from joining in the Rubio initiative.
The Political Angle
Everyone acknowledges that illegal immigration is a dilemma with two horns: treatment of illegal immigrants already in the country and border enforcement. Everybody acknowledges that this problem needs to be addressed. Yet for over a quarter of a century no real progress has been made. Why? Failing to find a rational answer, I am left with “politics”; pure, simple, and cynical. Starting with the 1986 reform, Democrats successfully bifurcated immigration along party lines. They aligned themselves with Hispanics by advocating amnesty while leaving equal protection and national security issues to the Republicans. Democrats could parade their success on amnesty in front of the Hispanic community. Meanwhile, they never quite got around to dealing with immigration and border enforcement, thus leaving the issue of immigration reform open. Democrats certainly weren’t going to bring up the enforcement issues and if Republicans did, Democrats would label them uncaring, mean-spirited racists.
In 2000, George W. Bush promised to address immigration reform. To counter this, Democrats in 2001 introduced legislation that subsequently became known as the DREAM Act, pairing amnesty with the ever-popular “It’s for the children.” More on that later. In his second term, Bush turned to immigration reform in earnest. Everyone had to give the appearance of negotiating in good faith but ultimately the Democrats were able to include poison pill amendments in the act. The failed, Democrats could blame Republicans for voting against it, and perhaps most important, Republicans were prevented from gaining a victory with the Hispanic community.
The DREAM Act has been a powerful political tool. Democrats would periodically dust it off, trot it out in Congress, and make sure Republicans were blamed when it didn’t pass. They’d then put it back in the drawer for future use. They even ran this game when they had full legislative control i 2009 and 2010.
Obama had created a problem by promising to do comprehensive immigration reform in the first year of his presidency. This along with the failure to pass the DREAM Act proved too much for the Hispanic community, resulting in undercurrents of frustration and disapproval. The 2010 elections solidified Obama’s “blame the Republicans” excuse and in 2011 he professed his powerlessness to act on behalf of Hispanics. That also didn’t play well, so he then had his administration enact the DREAM act via regulations. Hispanic community safely tucked away in the Democratic camp and problem solved, at least until Marco Rubio came along. The Rubio initiative posed a threat to Hispanic allegiance to Democrats and something needed to be done to prevent the GOP from obtaining a victory. So, the executive order he couldn’t sign in 2011 became a necessity in order to preempt Rubio and keep Hispanic loyalty.
History buffs may notice some parallels between this immigration reform issue and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Eisenhower’s civil rights initiatives were opposed by Democrats, notably Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was so diluted from Eisenhower’s initial vision as to be almost unrecognizable. Democrats had prevented a Republican victory with the African-American community but they had to act fast to claim a victory themselves. Thus, seven years later the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed. Although this act had more support from Republicans than Democrats, Johnson and the Democrats were more than happy to take credit for it. In doing so, they created a monolithic African-American voting bloc, the most reliable client group in the Democratic Party. Clearly, they hope to do the same with Hispanics.