Today, Americans go to the polls for municipal and state elections at a time of intense speculation about whether comprehensive immigration reform can pass Congress. What many may not realize is that voting trends at the state and local level this year are critical for the prospects of federal reform.
Twelve months ago, comprehensive immigration reform (reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, changes to the US visa system, and strengthening of border security) was dead – an issue with no chance of the bipartisan agreement necessary for a bill to pass Congress.
Then an election happened. And not just any election, but the first election in which Latino voters comprised 10 percent of the votes cast and voted overwhelmingly for President Obama – what many have called the decisive factor in his re-election. The next day, many Republicans who had previously stood behind candidate Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” rhetoric on undocumented immigrants came out in favor of immigration reform to solve their “Latino problem” – that is, Republicans’ poor appeal among Latino voters.
Even conservative pundit Sean Hannity said his position had “evolved” on the issue, and he announced support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants along with changes to America’s legal immigration and border security systems.
Since then, the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight came together to hammer out a bill that included the path to citizenship. With support from a super-majority of their colleagues, the bill passed the Senate.
But the Republican House leadership, led by Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio and under pressure from the tea party, has now dragged its feet by refusing to take up the Senate bill, with the key sticking point remaining the path to citizenship.
Now, once again, election season is upon us. And while those elected to municipal and state-wide posts this year will not be voting on comprehensive immigration reform, increasing Latino turnout in key races will up the pressure on members of Congress to support reform.
For years, the conventional wisdom about communities of color has been that their turnout is much higher in presidential years than in mid-term and municipal/state years, reducing their potential impact on the composition of the House of Representatives and more local races. But, as a recent Latino Decisions analysis pointed out, turnout among all demographics is lower in non-presidential years. And with the Latino and immigrant population continuing to grow, their political strength this year and next is likely on the rise.
This uptick will increase pressure on the House to act because it will demonstrate that Latinos and immigrants are a rising force that will also have an impact in mid-term elections in 2014, when House members will again be up for election.
Several key races this year on the East Coast will provide a useful indicator of the state of play with Latino voters.
In Virginia, the hotly-contested governor’s race between Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli could be decided by Latino voters, whose share of the population has more than doubled since 2000.
In New York City, Latino voters now comprise more than 20 percent of registered voters, according to my analysis of Voter Activation Network data. With a mayoral election between Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota that has attracted national attention, Latino turnout could prove critical.
The same is true in another New York area where my organization works, Nassau County on Long Island, which offers a microcosm of the nation’s demographic change. Once considered the realm of lily-white suburbs, residents of color now represent over 30 percent of Nassau's voting-age public, up from just over 20 percent in 2000. And the Latino and Asian-American populations have grown by approximately 50 and 70 percent, respectively, during that span. With a contentious County Executive election between the current and former occupants of that seat, Tom Suozzi and Ed Mangano, the Latino and immigrant vote may determine the outcome.
In all of these races, members of increasingly-diverse districts in Congress will be watching, including Long Island’s Rep. Peter King (R), New York City’s Rep. Michael Grimm (R), and Virginia's Frank Wolf (R).
Republican House members like Mr. King, Mr. Grimm, and Mr. Wolf are critical for the success of comprehensive immigration reform for two key reasons. The first is that they represent the new America – districts in which Latino, Asian, and immigrant communities are an increasingly large share of the population and the electorate, as opposed to the less-diverse districts of many House Republicans.
Second, these representatives can emphasize the urgency of comprehensive immigration reform to their party’s leadership, which will ultimately determine whether immigrant communities get the House vote they deserve.
Some, like Rep. King, have already earned immigrant rights advocates' praise by publicly supporting immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship. Now, King, Grimm, Wolf, and other Republican members of Congress in similar districts should stand up and support a vote on a comprehensive bill in the House this year. In fact, they should support HR15, the comprehensive House bill that already has three GOP co-sponsors and would likely win majority support if House leadership were to allow it to come up for a vote.
If for no other reason, House members like these must communicate to their leaders that Latinos’ growing electoral power will pose a threat to them in 2014 if their party maintains its anti-reform persona.
The imperative to make sure immigrant voices are heard by elected officials on immigration reform and other issues is precisely why organizations like mine are paying every bit as much attention in 2013 as we did in 2012, and as we will be in 2014. On Long Island, we registered more than 7,000 voters in Latino, immigrant, and African-American communities this year and will mobilize 25,000 members of these communities to the polls today. Allies around the country are doing similarly impressive work.
Ultimately, the path to reform requires making members of both parties understand that comprehensive immigration reform is smart policy and smart politics.
Supporters demonstrate the merit of the policy with strong arguments about the need to keep families together and help the US economy and tax base grow. These arguments have attracted business, labor, faith, and civil rights advocates to our cause.
Supporters demonstrate the political merit of immigration reform by ensuring that Latino and immigrant communities cast ballots each and every year in growing numbers. Election Day 2013 will offer another golden opportunity to do just that.
Daniel Altschuler is the coordinator of the Long Island Civic Engagement Table, a nonpartisan coalition to foster civic participation led by Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, the Central American Refugee Center, and the Long Island Immigrant Alliance. He is also a visiting scholar at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School for Public Engagement.