Recent statements by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the importance of enacting immigration reform this year has led some observers to conclude immigration reform should not be attempted during an election season and that legislation on this subject represents bad politics. They say it is a divisive and emotional issue, and one that will badly polarize the electorate. One leading news outlet even called it a "no-win" issue.
Yet those arguments ignore the fact that virtually no one likes the status quo. High-tech companies dislike restrictions on their ability to recruit foreign-born scientists and engineers. Farmers have problems bringing seasonal labor into the country to harvest fruits and vegetables. Universities have difficulty gaining student visas for those admitted from abroad. Taxpayers worry about a drain on public services from undocumented immigrants. Labor unions fear job competition from new arrivals. Those concerned about border security believe the government needs to take that issue far more seriously.
In a situation of widespread discontent, doing nothing is a poor political strategy. Voters want public officials to solve problems. Everyone understands that immigration is controversial, but that doesn't mean people want inaction. Many recognize the need for Congress to take affirmative steps to solve aspects of immigration they don't like.
If national leaders don't address immigration problems, the states will. Last week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a controversial measure authorizing police officers to stop any person they suspected of being in America illegally. Not only does that bill place local police in an impossible situation by forcing them to guess who has papers, it increases the odds of racial profiling by local authorities.
It is important to address immigration this year because of the crucial swing role of Latinos in upcoming elections. Nationally, that group comprises 15 percent of the population, up from 12 percent in 2000. With 46 million Hispanics, Latino voters are a rising political power. This is especially the case since they are concentrated in key states. The areas having the highest percentages of Hispanics include New Mexico (44 percent), California (36 percent), Texas (36 percent), Arizona (30 percent), and Nevada (25 percent).
Hispanics were crucial to President Barack Obama's 2008 victory. In election night exit polls, it was estimated that 67 percent of Hispanics voted for Obama, compared to 32 percent who favored Republican John McCain. This represented an eight percentage point improvement over 2004 when Democrat John Kerry garnered 59 percent of the Latino national vote, compared to 40 percent for Republican George W. Bush.
The swing nature of that vote pressures legislators in both parties to address the concerns of Latinos. That segment's political power requires politicians to seek comprehensive legislation. The spread of Hispanics into suburban districts, where they previously had not been present in large numbers, encourages centrists of each party to moderate their stances and respond affirmatively to new local constituents.
Polling data suggest the public is open to immigration reform. There is support for the United States creating a "path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants currently in the country, subject to certain conditions. Results from a Pew Research Center survey demonstrate that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Americans favor a "path to citizenship" if illegal immigrants pass a background check, pay fines and have a job.
Seventy-four percent say undocumented aliens must have lived in the country for at least five years, 57 percent feel they should pay a fine for coming to America illegally, and 89 percent believe they must be required to learn English. When those requirements are attached to legalization, Americans are ready for immigration reform.
Darrell M. West is Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the forthcoming Brookings Institution Press book, Brain Gain: Rethinking American Immigration.