E.g., 10/23/2017
E.g., 10/23/2017

Immigration Not Decisive in the Midterms, But Results Critical to the Congressional Debate

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Immigration Not Decisive in the Midterms, But Results Critical to the Congressional Debate

Immigration reform advocates at a February 2014 rally in North Carolina. (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian)

The political landscape in Washington has shifted at a critical juncture in the immigration debate after the recent midterm elections assured Republicans control of the Senate in January and padded their majority in the House of Representatives to levels unseen since the Truman administration.

While immigration did not prove the decisive issue in any of the congressional races, the new dominance of the Republican Party on Capitol Hill will certainly affect the tone—and the likely outcome—of the immigration debate over the next two years. And, despite the wave of Republican victories and firm GOP opposition to executive action on immigration, President Obama has pledged by year’s end to take steps to protect a share of the unauthorized immigrant population from deportation.

With House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) saying the president will “burn himself” if he proceeds, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) likening action to “waving a red flag in front of a bull,” executive action undoubtedly will have significant effects on the immigration debate and could ripple well beyond.

The Impact of Immigration on Election Outcomes

Heading into the midterms, it was unclear how important a role immigration would play. The spring surge in migration of unaccompanied children and families from Central America and fears concerning the spread of Ebola brought fresh focus on immigration controls in recent months and sparked new complaints from Republicans that the Obama administration was not as assertive as necessary in controlling the borders. Despite the heightened media coverage of the two developments, exit polls and post-election analyses suggested that immigration did not appear to drive voters to the polls or tip the scales in individual races.

Fourteen percent of exit poll respondents cited illegal immigration as their most important concern, compared to 45 percent who named the economy and 25 percent health care.

More than half (57 percent) of voters surveyed in exit polls said they believe unauthorized immigrants should be given an opportunity to gain legal status, while 38 percent said all unauthorized immigrants should be deported—a drop in support for legalization from 2012, when 66 percent of voters supported legal status compared to 29 percent in favor of deportation.  

While not decisive, immigration concerns did factor into a handful of races in different ways. In New Hampshire, where the incumbent Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen was expected to win reelection handily, Republican candidate Scott Brown made immigration an important theme, campaigning for increased border security and travel restrictions from West African countries dealing with the Ebola outbreak. Brown, who criticized Shaheen over her vote for the sweeping immigration reform bill that passed the Senate last year, lost by a narrow margin.

In Oregon, on the other hand, even as voters reelected a Democratic senator and governor and voted to legalize marijuana, they decisively repealed a state law allowing unauthorized immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. In Colorado, where Latinos comprise 14 percent of the electorate and the immigration issue was expected to boost Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Udall, the candidates largely avoided discussing immigration and GOP candidate Cory Gardner emerged victorious.

The Latino Vote

As always, there was much speculation about the role Latino voters would play in the midterms. While Hispanic voters overwhelmingly supported Democrats on November 4, their vote did not prove decisive, polling data showed.

Nationwide, voter turnout was low, including among Latinos, who were 8 percent of voters this fall, down from 10 percent in the 2012 presidential elections, but up from 7 percent during the 2010 midterm elections. Latinos account for 11 percent of all eligible U.S. voters.

Although Democrats maintained a significant advantage with Latino voters in this election, 62 percent to 36 percent for Republicans nationally, their edge is shrinking. In many contests, the share of the Latino vote won by Democrats was less than in the last three election cycles. In the 2012 presidential race, Republican Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of the Latino vote, while President Obama tallied 71 percent.

Republican candidates won more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in several important contests in 2014. For example, in the Texas gubernatorial race Republican Greg Abbott won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. In Georgia, 47 percent of Latino voters supported Republican Governor Nathan Deal and 42 percent favored Republican Senate candidate David Perdue. In Kansas, Republican Governor Sam Brownback was reelected with 47 percent of the Hispanic vote, and Nevada Republican Governor Brian Sandoval also earned 47 percent of the Latino vote, up from 15 percent in 2010.

Republican gains occurred despite polling data suggesting that immigration reform was a top issue for Latinos. When asked to cite the most important issue going into the elections, 45 percent of Latino voters said immigration, 34 percent jobs and the economy, 21 percent education, and 17 percent health care, according to Latino Decisions polling. Some pundits and Hispanic advocacy group leaders attributed low Latino voter turnout and muted support for Democrats to disappointment over President Obama’s decision to delay an expected late-summer announcement of executive action on deportations until after the midterms, in a bid to spare vulnerable Senate Democrats from any backlash.  Based on its polling, Latino Decisions concluded that the delayed announcement did contribute to low Hispanic turnout.

Implications for Executive Action and Legislation

A major showdown between Democrats and Republicans is expected once executive action is unveiled.  Some Republicans have threatened to use legal action, legislation, and budget authority to fight the president’s executive action. Others have raised the possibility of impeachment.

The White House is considering a combination of options to offer protection from deportation and provide work authorization to unauthorized immigrants with U.S. family ties and who have lived in the United States for a number of years, according to media reports. Categories being considered for relief include unauthorized parents of U.S.-citizen children, legal permanent residents (LPRs), and beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, as well as spouses of U.S. citizens and LPRs. The White House is also expected to expand eligibility for DACA, adjust the current priorities for deportation, and is being urged by business interests to implement changes that will affect agricultural workers and expand green cards for high-skilled visa recipients.

Approaching the 2016 presidential election—when the electorate will be more diverse and voter turnout much larger—both political parties face strong incentives to make progress on immigration reform. Democrats will seek to repair damage done with Latino voters over the delay in the president’s executive action and failure to pass immigration reform legislation. President Obama, who designated immigration reform a high priority in his first presidential campaign but has struggled to deliver, is looking to cement his legacy on this issue.

Similarly, many Republicans would like to improve their chances of winning the White House in 2016 by increasing their appeal to Latino voters, shedding the party’s image as anti-immigrant, and demonstrating that the GOP is capable of passing legislation and advancing an affirmative agenda.

But heightened rhetoric and partisan clashes undoubtedly will ensue when executive action is announced. And any immigration legislation will face major hurdles, including staunch opposition from influential Republican Senators likely to lead key committees. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), next in line to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, has warned President Obama that taking unilateral action on immigration would constitute an abuse of power, and has been a strong critic of visa programs for high-skilled foreign workers.

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), one of the Senate’s staunchest opponents of immigration reform and the next likely chair of the Budget Committee and potentially the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, has vowed to fight presidential executive action and pledged recently to use “all procedural means necessary” to force the Senate to block it. With legislation over appropriations generally seen as the GOP’s main avenue to thwart Obama’s executive action, many anticipate that immigration could become central in the upcoming appropriations debate.

While Republicans have the upper hand in the Senate, they lack the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster and bring legislation up for a vote. In the House, the dynamic that made immigration legislation elusive in the 113th Congress not only remains in place, but the share of seats held by Tea Party conservatives, who tend to oppose immigration reform, has expanded. And further down Pennsylvania Avenue, President Obama can wield a veto pen if Congress sends him unwanted legislation.

The challenges the Republicans face in moving legislation to reform the U.S. immigration system are daunting. But if party leaders manage to overcome them, Democrats will be presented with a difficult choice: Will they negotiate and accept a compromise, or choose to keep the issue alive for 2016 to draw a stark contrast between the two parties?

National Policy Beat in Brief

President Obama Announces Extended Visas for Chinese Nationals. The United States and China will extend the validity of certain visas issued to each other’s citizens under a deal announced by President Obama in Beijing on November 10. Effective November 12, all future U.S. tourist and business visas issued to Chinese nationals will be valid for ten years, and student visas will be valid for five years. Previously, these visas were valid for only one year. China will adopt reciprocal policies on visa durations. The changes do not affect the permitted length of stay for Chinese visa holders, but alleviate the need for those traveling to or studying in the United States to apply for a new visa each year. The change will spur more tourism and business to the United States, according to the Obama administration.

MAVNI Program Placed on Hold. The Department of Defense suspended its Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, after a decision by the Pentagon in October to open MAVNI eligibility to beneficiaries of the Obama’s administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created complications with applicant screening procedures. Prior to the policy change, only lawfully present noncitizens holding certain nonimmigrant visas and humanitarian status were eligible for participation. The MAVNI program was created in 2008 to recruit immigrants with specific skills, including foreign language abilities, into the military; participants are eligible for an expedited path to citizenship. 

State and Local Policy Beat in Brief

Arizona’s 2005 Smuggling Law Blocked. On November 8, a U.S. District Court judge in Arizona struck down a 2005 Arizona law that prohibits smuggling of human beings for profit or commercial purpose. The judge ruled that the statute was preempted by federal law. The judge’s rejection of the smuggling statute concludes the Obama administration’s lawsuit against Arizona’s 2010 omnibus immigration enforcement law, S.B. 1070, which amended the 2005 law. Most elements of S.B. 1070 were permanently enjoined by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 as preempted by federal law.

New York Orders Review of School Enrollment for Unaccompanied Children. On October 23, New York state officials announced a statewide compliance review of public schools’ enrollment practices for unaccompanied minors and other unauthorized students. The review was ordered following reports that 34 recently arrived Central American children were not admitted to public schools in the Hempstead School District. Under the 1982 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler vs. Doe, unauthorized children are guaranteed the same right to public primary and secondary education as U.S. citizens and permanent residents. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, almost 69,000 unaccompanied children were taken into Border Patrol custody at the U.S.-Mexico border; between January 1 and September 30, 5,033 were released to sponsors in New York.