Immigration Reform Prospects For 2013

Thursday, December 20, 2012 - 09:13

Editor: Why is it likely that the new Congress will address immigration?

Cooper: Virtually all observers were expecting that if he won a second term, President Obama would come under a great deal of pressure to make a second-term push to fulfill his first-term promise to pass immigration reform. But in the wake of November’s election, immigration reform gained momentum, overnight, far beyond what even the strongest reform advocates were hoping for.

The single driving force behind this new momentum is the Latino vote. For the first time ever, Latino voters exceeded 10 percent of the voting public - and they voted overwhelmingly for President Obama. Latino voters favored President Obama over Mitt Romney by 71 percent to 28 percent. They played important roles in key battleground states. In Colorado, for example, 87 percent of Latino voters voted for President Obama, and the number of Latino votes for President Obama – more than 260,000 - was more than double the President's margin of victory in that state.

This demographic pattern has led many top Republican voices, both in and out of Congress, to identify immigration as the issue that Republicans must approach differently to renew their ability to appeal to Latino voters. Fox News' Sean Hannity was telling listeners just two days after the election that he has "evolved" on immigration, and that Republicans have "got to get rid of the immigration issue altogether" by enacting immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented. In the House, where the Republican majority had been seen as strongly resistant to broad immigration reform and where the predominant focus has been on stronger enforcement, Speaker John Boehner was quoted just after the election as "confident" that Congress and the White House could reach a deal on comprehensive immigration reform.

So, although it is way too early to guess what will happen, and this has been an intractable issue for a long time, the landscape for immigration reform is dramatically different from before the election.

Editor: What message did the voting demographics send?

Cooper: The voting demographics have caused a lot of elected officials – and some unelected ones – to reconsider the way that immigration policy positions connect with voters broadly, but with Hispanic voters in particular. Mitt Romney was persuaded by his advisors to steer hard right on immigration during the primaries, and he took some severe positions, endorsing policies that would encourage “self-deportation.” He stated that he would veto the DREAM Act, which is a long-simmering bill – one that used to enjoy broad bipartisan support – that would give legal status and a path toward citizenship to certain categories of undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country unlawfully as children. There was pretty strong polling evidence that these kinds of positions on immigration cost him a lot of support among Hispanic voters. By contrast, President Obama – whose tough enforcement record and failure to carry through his promise to drive immigration reform in Congress had cost him as well – announced a policy last summer to stop the deportations of those who would have benefitted from the DREAM Act. This won him a huge bump in support and enthusiasm among Hispanic voters. These patterns are causing lots of people to see legalization and, more broadly, immigration reform through a different lens now.

Editor: Do some leading Republicans still view legalization of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants as “amnesty" for people who have broken the nation's laws?

Cooper: Sure. Some Democrats do as well, though in smaller numbers. Immigration has traditionally been one of those issues that does not break down on strict party lines. But you have it exactly right. That’s going to be the big fault line as the debate heats up.

Editor: Tell us about the creation of a super PAC designed to help GOP members of Congress who support comprehensive immigration legislation.

Cooper: Yes, that’s an interesting one. It’s called Republicans for Immigration Reform. One of its founders is Carlos Gutierrez, who was President George W. Bush’s commerce secretary and a core member of that administration’s cabinet-level team that was pushing immigration reform legislation. The super PAC was created to help provide political support to Republicans who are interested in advancing comprehensive immigration reform. One of the key fears that members of Congress face on immigration is getting “primaried” – challenged most ferociously not by the other party’s candidate in the general election, but by opponents within the same party who accuse the incumbent during the primary of being too centrist. So in a conservative district, an incumbent who supports comprehensive immigration reform has to fear being flamed in the primary for being too soft. I think that with this super PAC, Mr. Gutierrez – who said Mitt Romney lost the election because “the far right of this party has taken the party to a place that it doesn’t belong” – is trying to shift that dynamic.

By the way, speaking of Carlos Gutierrez’s role in pushing immigration reform for the Bush administration - President Obama took a lot of heat for not organizing a similarly muscular cabinet-level push of his own for immigration reform. I think that the White House has heard that message, and this time around, we’ll see a very different level of administration involvement than in the first term.

Editor: Do Republicans support sweeping legislation or a series of smaller bills?

Cooper: There appears to be a mix of views, but Republicans seem more generally to favor going issue by issue, and starting with the ones where agreement is easier to get to. Democrats are much more uniformly in favor of a comprehensive approach. But this is a very delicate issue right now, the one that people seem most jumpy about at the moment. I think that the more dialogue there is among the various offices and stakeholders on this issue in the weeks ahead, the better, so that mistrust doesn’t overtake the debate.

Editor: What steps have some Democrats taken to support sweeping immigration reform?

Cooper: At this point, they have simply staked out a strong public position that they see a full-scale bill as the way to proceed. And since Democrats control the Senate, we’re likely to see more concrete steps in the weeks and months ahead toward a comprehensive bill in that chamber. But the discussions going on now about what a comprehensive bill would look like involve members of both parties, and that’s important. Given the status quo election in November, the one thing that is certain is that if there is to be any kind of immigration reform, it has to be bipartisan.

Editor: Has immigration reform gained support from business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce? Why?

Cooper: Yes, the Chamber has definitely been a strong positive presence in the reform debate, and I expect that will be the case in the period ahead. They have expressed a set of broad reform principles and are likely to be very active. Business will definitely be a major stakeholder in the debate ahead, and that is partly because a growing number of companies are willing to lend their voices to the need for widespread reform of the immigration system. Another part is that the economic need is so acute. There is clearer and clearer evidence that, despite the slow pace of economic recovery and despite the unacceptable overall unemployment rate, the economy is creating jobs at the higher skill and education levels that cannot all be filled by American workers. There is clearer and clearer evidence that our country suffers from a skills gap in key fields. For example, the unemployment rate in computer-related occupations is not much above three percent, and the unmet need is projected to worsen. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted that each year between now and 2020 the economy will generate more than 120,000 new computer-related jobs demanding at least a bachelor’s degree, yet our education system is generating only about 40,000 new bachelor’s degrees in computer science each year. In computer science and other “skills gap” fields, the solution has got to lie largely in finding new ways to strengthen the education and opportunity pipeline for Americans, and the main problems underlying this skills gap – college completion rates, access to strong K-12 education in the STEM fields, and so on – hit minority and lower-income students particularly severely. But just as critically as we need education reform, we also need to benefit from existing pools of talent, including foreign professionals, if we are going to close these skills gaps and keep jobs in this country. Also, welcoming bright, driven people from around the world has always been what sets America apart. For these reasons and plenty of others, I think you’ll see business playing a big part in the reform debate, and any successful reform will have to account for these stark economic needs.

Editor: Will making it easier for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship be coupled with measures to strengthen our border with Mexico, more effective screening of job applicants and otherwise clamping down on illegal immigrants?

Cooper: It’s difficult to see a broad immigration reform bill, particularly assuming that it includes legalization, not including additional enforcement measures. Congress will not, and should not, consider a robust legalization policy without some level of assurance that the problem will not just repeat itself. On the other hand, many of the enforcement measures that were raised by some as preconditions of broader reform in the last debates in 2007 have largely been met in the years since. There will be a strong effort this time around to make sure that additional enforcement measures are properly targeted. One area that employers should be attentive to is employment verification. Those rules are virtually certain to change if immigration reform moves ahead.

Editor: Have efforts been made to reach out to conservative religious leaders and law enforcement officials for support of a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants? What arguments have been made to each of these groups?

Cooper: Those efforts have been made. Just last month, there was a major gathering in Washington of representatives from these sectors, as well as business leaders, to press for reform. The aim was to blend differing themes – economic need, public safety, family values, moral imperatives, and so on. I think that we will see a lot of creative alliances like this, not just on legalization, but on other immigration reform issues as well as the debate continues.

Editor: What is the position of the unions and liberal groups with respect to comprehensive immigration reform?

Cooper: They generally are very supportive of comprehensive reform, with a firm emphasis on legalization and a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Organized labor and advocates for the undocumented have generally closely been aligned on this issue. There will undoubtedly be some tricky issues ahead in the debate though. For example, organized labor and the high-skilled employer community have had an uneasy relationship over what the right immigration levels and the right labor protections are. This is one of those areas where careful, measured thinking and continued dialogue will be critical and employers will need to be vocal about their talent needs and the ways that foreign professionals can generate jobs and economic opportunity for Americans, and now is the time. Conversations are happening among policymakers, plans are being designed, positions are being staked out, alliances are being formed, and bills will start appearing early in the year. None of us knows how it will play out, but the game’s on.

Please email the interviewee at bcooper@fragomen.com with questions about this interview.