Why Support for (Any Old) Immigration Reform Won’t Solve the GOP’s Problem with Latino Voters
Immigration reform is up for debate in the Senate!
Everyone knows the story by now: 1) with an eye to their electoral future, Senate Republicans are newly interested in reaching out to Latino voters, 2) they’re nervous about upsetting their anti-immigrant base, 3) House Republicans are generally more interested in #2 than #1, 4) but if Speaker Boehner puts the Hastert Rule aside for a minute, 5) there’s a chance that reform passes.
What if, to borrow a line from 90’s hip-hop, it all goes through like it’s supposed to? Will Latinos give the GOP credit for passing reform by adding a handful of votes to the solid Democratic majorities backing the law?
I doubt it. Honestly, immigration reform is more likely to cement the Democratic Party’s popularity with Latinos—because it’s consistent with the rest of their policies affecting that community. See, I noticed something striking while digging through the Senate’s competing No Child Left Behind reauthorization bills last week. I took at the Republican bill over at Early Ed Watch (note: Title III is the largest federal program supporting American English-language learning students):
[Sen. Lamar] Alexander’s [R-TN] bill would apparently cut nearly $60 million from Title III funding. It’s worth noting that the cut would actually be a bit smaller than that. In FY 2011 and 2012, respectively, Congress appropriated $734 million and $732 million for Title III. This shouldn’t be misconstrued, though: a $40 million cut is still significant—especially for a program that is already such a small part of the total Department of Education budget. Of course, I haven’t adjusted these numbers for inflation. In 2013 dollars, the original $750 million appropriation would approach $1 billion annually. This means that the Title III budget has already been shrinking in the context of inflation.
Alexander’s bill fixes spending at that lower level, whereas NCLB left future appropriations to be determined annually by Congress. By capping spending through 2018, Alexander effectively slates Title III for cuts (by means of inflation) each year—on top of the raw deduction in funding. Put simply, $694 million will be worth less in 2018 than it is now.
Appropriately enough, Alexander’s bill came up for a vote in committee the very same day that GOP senators got their chance to expiate their party’s past sins against Latinos. All ten Republican members of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee voted in support of Alexander’s measure—voted, that is, to cut federal funding for English-language learners (all twelve Democratic members of the committee opposed it, and the bill failed). Four of them went to the Senate floor and voted against immigration reform (Enzi, Kirk, Roberts, and Scott), and one abstained (Murkowski).
I’m not suggesting, of course, that Latino voters determine their votes according to obscure HELP Committee maneuvers. Rather, I’m suggesting that the GOP’s newfound support of immigration reform is, as yet, the exception that proves the broader rule. Alexander’s bill is just one illustration of the many Republican policies that undercut support systems critical for many Latino children and their families.
Or, to put it a bit cryptically, citizenship is a baseline—not a boon. Many immigrants who gain legal status under the law will have (or be) children in desperate need of language supports in their schools. In addition to nearly unanimous support for immigration reform, one party offers them substantial material and organizational support. The other party offers partial, grudging support for immigration reform, while simultaneously cutting programs that help Latino children and their families assimilate into American life.
If immigration reform passes, which would you expect Latino voters to support?
 Important caveat: Not all immigrants are Latinos. Not all Latinos in the United States are immigrants. Not all Latinos are English-language learners. Etc. However, 80% of English-language learners in the United States are Latinos. What’s more, (part of) the GOP isn’t backing immigration reform to appeal to Irish stowaways. They’re trying to broaden their appeal to American Latinos, and Alexander’s bill runs directly counter to that strategy.