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.

LM Otero/AP
Former President George W. Bush gives opening remarks at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas for a conference titled 'Immigration and 4% Growth: How Immigrants grow the U.S. Economy,' Dec. 4, in Dallas.

In the past few days:

• 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.

Even Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports lower immigration rates, writes in a Nov. 26 blog entry that the postelection dynamics "suggest there is a common ground on immigration.” He goes on: “In short: amnesty for long-term, deserving illegal aliens in exchange for an end to future mass immigration – after the implementation of enforcement tools to ensure that we don't have another 11 million illegals a few years down the road."

The decision by Mr. Bush – who received 44 percent of Hispanic votes in his 2004 reelection bid, compared with Mr. Romney's 27 percent – to devote his second major address since leaving Washington to immigration issues reinforced the idea that Republicans are interested in painting a more inclusive vision of Hispanic immigration.

"Not only do immigrants help build our economy, they invigorate our soul," Bush said at Tuesday's speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

That sentiment played at least in part into a Republican-led bill that passed the House last week, creating green-card opportunities for 55,000 immigrants who graduate from US colleges with advanced degrees. Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas said this week that the bill will "hopefully be ... a confidence builder that will see other common-sense immigration proposals follow along."

And in Illinois, the Senate has passed legislation that would issue special driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. The House, which is also a Democratic majority, is set to take the bill up next. If it becomes law, Illinois would be the most populous state allowing undocumented immigrants to legally drive. The licenses would have a different design from other ones in Illinois and would contain the phrase "not for identification," so it can't be used to board a plane or buy a gun.

The developments in Illinois suggest that Americans, at least in some parts of the country, will entertain bold proposals that acknowledge the potential damages wrought by having a huge illegal subculture living along the edges of American society.

At the same time, it's at the state level, in places like Arizona and Georgia, where anti-immigrant rhetoric is the strongest. This is where moderate Republicans will have the toughest time changing the tone of the debate.

Yet there is a potential federal solution for these tensions – mainly, the acknowledgment in the broader debate that it may have been Washington's failure to properly enforce immigration laws that helped to "radicalize" states against immigration in the first place.

Looking forward, Ms. Purcell sees more warmth toward immigrants from the GOP, as well as potential complications for Democrats as the country seeks a solid fix for a broken system.

"The person who ends up being the Republican candidate in 2016 is going to have a much more acceptable view on immigration than was the case this year," she says. "On the Democratic side, the big issue that helped derail President Bush's effort [in 2007] was that labor unions did not want to hear anything about temporary workers, and that was also why then-Senator Obama, who sided with the labor unions, voted against it. Whether or not the issue of temporary labor is going to be part of any new attempt at comprehensive reform remains to be seen."

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