Why The Prospects For Immigration Reform Didn’t Change Overnight

brownmacThis morning, Politico published a story aptly pointing out that “all is not lost” for Democrats following the election of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate. However, one issue which Politico did identify as “toxic” is immigration reform. According to Politico, the issue’s death is signaled by the fact that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) “isn’t playing ball” which means there are “fewer Republican crossover votes.” Yet, not only is Politico’s reasoning unrelated to the election of Brown, it’s also based on a superficial and inaccurate analysis.

To begin with, last night’s election results don’t represent a referendum on President Obama’s legislative agenda, which includes immigration. Exit polls show that only 38% of Massachusetts voters indicated that their vote was grounded in opposition to Obama’s policies. In fact, independent voters largely accounted for Brown’s victory. Those voters also support comprehensive immigration reform by a wide margin and overwhelmingly voted for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) — an avid champion of immigrant rights — year after year. If anything, Scott’s win represents a frustration with partisan-driven inaction. It also encompasses a collective sense of impatience with the lack of economic recovery. Immigration reform could speak to both.

Immigration reform and the economy are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, the prospects for immigration reform have always been tied to its capacity to attract bipartisan support. McCain “isn’t playing ball” because the ball isn’t in his court this time around. While McCain co-sponsored the failed immigration reform bill of 2006, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is taking the lead in partnering with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) in crafting a bill that will have to avoid the major pitfalls of past failed pieces of legislation. Rather than drawing a line in the sand between Republicans and Democrats, immigration reform signals an opportunity for both parties to show voters they can work together to get something done in Congress.

Ultimately, it’s both in McCain’s and Brown’s interest to support comprehensive immigration reform. Almost 30% of Arizona’s immigrants (or 294,541 people) were naturalized U.S. citizens as of 2007 — meaning they are eligible voters with a close connection to the immigrant experience. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts foreign born population represents over 14 percent of state’s total population and 17 percent of the state’s workforce. They also make up about 12.7 percent (403,915) of registered voters. Neither Martha Coakley nor Brown campaigned heavily in Latino and immigrant communities. However, during a press call today, president of the National Council of La Raza Janet Murguía noted that ignoring the Latino community and the immigration issue could have devastating consequences:

Promises have been made on both sides on this issue…inaction means there will be consequences. That’s true not just for Latinos, but for swing voters…Campaigns need to engage the Latino community pro-actively if they want their support. We certainly didn’t see the outreach [from the Coakley campaign] to the Latino community that you would’ve expected in order to generate the support needed to make a difference…

SEIU Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina further pointed out that “we lost one vote that will make our job more difficult — but not impossible.” While the viability of reforming U.S. immigration laws doesn’t ride on Brown’s seat, Brown might find himself in a position in which he needs immigration reform more than it needs him.