Waiting for Godot: Immigration, Politics and the Risks of Delay
In the fall of 2000, as pro-immigration forces successfully lobbied for an expansion of the H-1B quota, they made a key strategic decision not to launch a frontal assault on the immigrant visa quota system. Instead, they opted to focus on getting more H-1Bs while attempting to get around the larger problem by enabling Indian and Chinese green card seekers to borrow from the surplus visas that went unused by other nationalities. Not much thought was given to what hundreds of thousands of new H-1Bs would do when their authorized stay expired.
At this same time, the presidential election resulted in George Bush losing the overall popular vote but winning the electoral college and moving into the White House. President Bush embraces immigration, wants to spend $100 million a year for five years to speed up naturalization, supports bilingual education, endorses an extension of 245(i) and is moving to create a new guest worker program for Mexican nationals in the US as a possible route to permanent status. No recent Chief Executive has placed such a high profile on relations with Mexico or attempted to reach out in symbolic ways to Americans of Hispanic origin. Experts speculate that White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez will be the first Hispanic named to the Supreme Court at the earliest vacancy. Can Bush do better among Hispanic voters? While President Bush garnered 35% of the Hispanic vote in the 2000 race, an improvement over 1992 and 1996, years in which Republicans lost, Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. got 37% in 1984 and 33% in 1988, respectively, without doing much if any outreach.
Nonetheless, Bush obviously feels that the Hispanic vote is the key to re-election in 2004. Matthew Dowd, Bush's chief pollster in 2000, recently told the Washington Post that if Bush did not do better among Hispanics next time, he would lose in 2004. Another top Republican pollmeister, Whit Ayres of Georgia, observed that, while only winning 35% of the national Hispanic vote, Bush actually won 50% of the southern Hispanic vote in areas of the country that knew him better. Ayres felt that Bush "clearly has the potential to win two-thirds in 2004. Nationally, he could bump up from one-third to half of the Hispanic vote, given the fundamental values of so many Hispanic families with their emphasis on work and family structure."
Yet, Bush's pro-immigration stance is not without critics inside his own party. Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) warned in this same Washington Post piece that "Bush may end up selling out the party. Recently naturalized Mexicans will never vote Republican in lage numbers... Immigration is not going to save the Republican Party, immigration is going to kill the Republican Party." Senators Gramm of Texas and Lott of Mississippi have already spoken out against the trial balloon sent up recently by the White House to grant amnesty to as many as 3 million undocumented Mexicans living in the United States. In a January 26, 2001, essay in Front Page Magazine on Republicans and minority voters, Adam Kolasinski issued this dire warning to his fellow conservatives:
A nationwide Zogby poll in February showed that 72% of Americans want immigration reduced... Given that immigrants overwhelmingly vote Democratic, Republicans must advocate a tighter immigration policy or face political irrelevance... It is imperative that Republicans push for a reduction in immigration. Over 80% of immigrants are members of racial minority groups which consistently vote Democratic. Current immigration flows, if allowed to continue, will thus alter America's demographics so that Republicans cannot get elected.The American people, even Hispanics, though to a much lesser degree, remain confused and deeply ambivalent about continued high levels of immigration. The sustained prosperity and job creation of the late 1990's have masked such concerns to some degree but these anxieties have not gone away and could rebound with a vengeance if the economy does not. We would also do well to remember that while nativism and hard times usually go hand in hand, the most draconian immigration restriction ever enacted, the infamous 1924 statute that gave us the system of national origins quotas that lasted for four decades, was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Coolidge during an era of enormous general prosperity. Plenty and prejudice can also coexist. In the last few years, the pro-immigration forces have won significant legislative victories in the H-1B arena. Congress is with us, we think, and we will score more wins in the future. Maybe. Old timers like yours truely remember a similar glow of contentment after Congress tripled the employment-based quotas in 1990 - we woke up six years later and found that our enemies had been organizing out beyond the Beltway and boy were we surprised when they flexed their political muscle. If you think this is undue pessimism, read the results of a Zobgy poll of California voters released on April 17, 2001:
A: 62% said that immigration made education reform more difficult;
While now in temporary retreat, nativisim remains a potent force in American politics as it always has and always will. If the Republican share of the Hispanic vote does not significantly increase in the 2002 mid-term elections and if President Bush fails to break the 40% barrier in 2004, his embrace of immigration could quickly cool. The Republicans could return to their historic home on the other side of the immigration debate. They are not going to keep the gates wide open so more newly-minted citizens can elect Democrats. At this same time, particularly if recent declines in corporate profit and capital reinvestment continue and perhaps intensify, American public opinion will not be receptive to any suggestion that we need more immigrants. This would come at the very time that the pressures on the immigrant quotas created by continued high demand and sharply higher H-1B quotas reach their most intense level.
The pro-immigration forces had a chance last year to link the drive for more H1Bs with a companion crusade for more immigrant visas. First things first, they went for more H numbers and put off doing any thing about the real problem until later when things would get worse and Congress would have to act in response to another emergency campaign and lots of money. There is danger in the playing for time. Political realities may no longer be on your side. Let us act now to reform the immigrant quota system - while there is still time and before President Bush decides that mayble making nice to immigration wasn't such good politics after all.
About The Author
Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP Amoco Corporation. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP Amoco Corporation in any way.