The Hispanic vote, once elusive but surging in recent elections, still puzzles politicians: Come November, how will the immigration issue affect the Hispanic vote? No doubt, the issue has been a key sticking point in countless congressional discussions this past year, but a lack of consensus and battling proposals among elected officials are impacting the polls and igniting partisan conflicts.
The political jockeying stems from immigration legislation that was approved by both the House and Senate. The versions are markedly different, with the House focusing solely on border security and enforcement, and the Senate adding several controversial provisions, such as proposals for temporary guest workers and so-called "earned" legalization for millions of undocumented workers currently living in the United States.
When several House Republicans, including Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), expressed reservations about the Senate version, and threatened not bringing up the bill for final consideration until those issues were resolved, GOP leaders decided to hold a series of hearings to learn what "regular folks" outside of Washington thought – a move that enraged many Democrats.
Mr. Hastert explained, the "one priority is to secure the border, and right now I haven't heard a lot of pressure to have a path to citizenship."
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), a member of the Armed Services Committee and the Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee, and a former Border Patrol chief, calls it political posturing. "Rather than hammering out the details of this long-overdue plan before the elections, they chose to stall by holding 'hearings' on legislation that both chambers of Congress have already passed," Mr. Reyes says.
Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-TX) was equally surprised. "During my seven years in the House, I cannot remember ever holding hearings after a bill passed," says Mr. Gonzalez. "Clearly [the GOP] is delaying progress [on an immigration bill] in the hopes that using immigration to inflame Americans will allow them to retain control of the House in this fall's elections."
Other top Democrats agree, saying the GOP needs to "stop playing politics" with immigration.
"Americans from all walks of life are demanding that Congress put partisan politics aside and approve comprehensive immigration reform now," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told Hispanic Business. "Unfortunately, it seems that the Republican leadership in Congress is more interested in seeking anti-immigrant votes than in going to conference to get a bill done this year. Now is the time for President Bush…to rein in the right wing of his party so we can enact tough, smart, and fair immigration reform."
However, most Republicans – maintaining confidence in their party's strategy – are downplaying the possible electoral impact among the Hispanic constituency on the immigration issue.
"Democrats are trying desperately to nationalize this election, while Republicans are focused on running each race on local issues that matter most district-by district," explains Alejandro Burgos (R-TX), spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the party's chief fundraising committee dedicated to electing Republicans to the U.S. House of Representatives. "We recognize that what matters to Miami Hispanics differs from what Hispanics in Albuquerque care about, and only a local strategy can seize on those differences and turn them into Republican votes."
POLLSTERS TAKE STOCK
Some surveys are telling a different story, and political observers say Mr. Hastert's comments are politically shortsighted. Not only are voters questioning their party allegiance, but the immigration issue is also blurring party support among lawmakers.
A recent poll by the Manhattan Institute found that a majority of registered Republican voters favor a comprehensive immigration reform plan that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The poll of 800 likely voters conducted by the Tarrance Group, a GOP polling firm, found that 75 percent favor an "earned" legalization plan. The survey also found that 67 percent oppose deporting all 12 million undocumented immigrants, and 70 percent oppose offering an "earned" legal status without the possibility of citizenship, such as a temporary worker program.
The Manhattan Institute survey also found that immigration ranked second behind terrorism and national security on issues that were considered important to voters, with Iraq and gas prices trailing far behind.
And a survey by the Rasmussen Reports, which covers public opinion issues, found that on issues such as Iraq and the economy, "both parties have fairly established positions and voters line up with the party whose views they share. Immigration is unsettling for the status quo because it cuts across the typical partisan and ideological lines in ways that could reshape the nation's political equilibrium."
Republicans in the Senate who support a comprehensive immigration reform are urging their colleagues in the House to think of possible electoral consequences.
"I tell my colleagues in the House afraid of losing votes who think that a hard line on immigration will help them in November that the opposite is true," says Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) "If this comprehensive immigration reform bill doesn't pass, it could mean that they lose their jobs. If we [the Republican Party] can't solve the immigration problem because it's too hard for us, people are going to turn to the other party."
Nonetheless, the Rasmussen Reports also finds that for immigration "at the moment, neither political party enjoys unity within its own ranks on the issue."
HISPANICS WEIGH IN
At 13 percent of the total U.S. population and growing, Hispanics are a much sought-after voter bloc. Both political parties are looking to develop plans that will garner support, but according to a 2006 survey conducted by the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center, neither is doing much to inspire confidence among this coveted group. However, the results are mixed and, if anything, show that it's the Democrats' point to lose.
The 2006 National Survey of Latinos found a majority of those surveyed believes the Democratic Party has a better handle on the immigration issue, with the share of Hispanics who deem the Republican Party as having the best position on immigration dropping from 25 percent in 2004 to 16 percent. More importantly, almost the entire loss in support is from foreign-born Hispanics (28 percent to 12 percent), which represent a growing pool of voters.
In a separate national poll of Spanish-language dominant Hispanic voters, the NDN Political Fund and Bendixen Associates found that this sub-group of Hispanic voters, traditionally big supporters of the Republican Party and President Bush, are rethinking their affiliations.
For example, Kerry beat Bush 52 percent to 48 percent in the 2004 election among Spanish-dominant voters. When asked how they would vote if the election were held now, the Spanish-dominant margin blossomed to a 36-point lead for Democrats, 59 percent to 23 percent. And, on the immigration reform issue, only 15 percent believe that the current policies being debated would make it more likely they vote Republican.
Immigrant rights groups are looking beyond party-specific criticisms. Group representatives say that part of the problem with immigration reform stalling in Congress is the lack of a significant Hispanic voting bloc that legislators consider powerful enough not to ignore.
"The future of immigrant men, women, and children will be at stake this November and we will be concentrating efforts in battleground states to turn out the vote," says Lydia Hernandez of the Arizona Coalition for Migrant Rights.
Coalition members say they are looking beyond this year's congressional elections.
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