The Politics of Immigration

President Obama made news yesterday when, according to the Wall Street Journal, he told Sen. Scott Brown that Democrats would try to move on immigration reform next month. Brown, for his part, said he would read any proposal, but won’t commit to anything.

The question is, with the public already inflamed after the Democrats rammed through their health care legislation and a heated Supreme Court battle on tap for the summer, why would the White House, during an election year, want to take up an issue that is among the most contentious in politics?

I can think of several reasons. The most obvious one is that there’s a risk that Hispanic voters, who helped fuel Obama’s victory in 2008, will grow disillusioned if he doesn’t deliver for them and thus won’t turn out in large enough numbers this November. As the Los Angeles Times reports today, “Immigration advocates fear the White House is doing the bare minimum needed to appease Latino voters before the midterm elections in November, while concentrating its efforts on issues it considers more urgent.”

James Carville argued recently that Democrats should push immigration, because right now voter intensity is on the side of Republicans, and the immigration issue divides the GOP more than it divides Democrats.

It’s true that for a lot of Democrats running in swing districts, an immigration bill would force them to take a tough vote. But the thinking among leadership may be, essentially, that the conservative base is already as fired up as it can be, and moderate Democrats in swing districts have already been forced to vote on health care and “cap and trade” anyway. So, Democrats may be thinking that bringing up immigration could energize their voters while merely making an incremental difference to the already energized GOP base by just adding to a mix of issues they’re angry about. And perhaps Carville is right and we could see some fissures among the libertarian and conservative wings which have been united on issues such as energy, health care, the stimulus bill, but have different perspectives on immigration.

Should Democrats pursue immgration, my guess would be that their political operation — as well as their allies in the media — will be working overtime to portray anybody opposed to their legislation as racist. Any controversial comment by any Republican or opponent of the legislation will be blown up to drive this point home, not only to fire up Hispanic voters, but to discourage white suburban voters from wanting to vote for the “racist” GOP.

Whether they’ll actually go through with the immigration push remains to be seen, but these are likely some of the reasons that they’re considering it.