Does Bush's immigration speech signal Latinos' new clout?
Developments in recent days, including the speech by former President Bush and an Illinois bill to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, suggest a shift in attitudes on immigration issues.
In the past few days:Skip to next paragraph
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• House Republicans (of all people) passed a limited immigration reform bill.
• Former President George W. Bush called for Republicans to embrace a "benevolent spirit" when writing national labor and immigration policy.
• Illinois lawmakers moved closer to issuing special driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, joining two other states that already do so.
After years of Republican-controlled state legislatures excoriating a porous border and the economic damage done by undocumented immigrants, these developments suggest that Latinos are suddenly America's most courtable demographic.
The moves come as the Republican Party struggles to tame the outright anti-immigrant hostility that bristled from the primary debates among potential GOP standard-bearers, including the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney.
"What you're seeing now is the result of the massive loss of Hispanic support for the Republican presidential candidate in the recent election," says Susan Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. "When Hispanics, who have the highest unemployment rate of any of the minority groups under the Obama presidency, vote overwhelmingly for Obama, there's a message there – that demonizing immigrants really backfired horribly against the Republican Party."
None of which is to say that illegal immigrants necessarily have a new spring to their step. Laws in Arizona and Alabama now allow police to check the immigration status of those stopped for suspected wrongdoing, in a bold effort to discourage illegal immigration.
And there is still a strong anti-illegal-immigrant vibe in America, especially in areas where natives not only compete for jobs, but are also hurt when immigrant labor pushes wages downward. In these places, resentment builds when illegal immigrants receive government largess and citizens struggle. That anger has translated into fear in immigrant barrios in states like Alabama.
Moreover, aside from his rhetoric, the reality is that President Obama's immigration policy has been particularly tough on illegal immigrants, given record-high deportation numbers in the first few years of his term.
And, lastly, America's stubbornly sluggish economy has taken an outsize toll on low-skill immigrant labor – enough to, as a net effect, essentially halt overall border jumping from Mexico to the United States.
On the political and policy fronts, however, the shifts in rhetoric suggest a new momentum tied to Hispanic voting power, even to a new sense of respect for extended Latino families, which often include members who are in the US illegally.
It's still far from clear whether that higher regard will mean amnesty. But polls suggest Americans are warming to the idea. In Election Day exit polling by Edison Research, 65 percent of Americans said illegal immigrants should be given an opportunity to become citizens, versus 28 percent who said they should be deported. In addition, Americans have largely supported the Obama administration's “DREAM Act-lite,” which offers two-year work permits to young undocumented immigrants who qualify.