When the economy is in the tank, voters look for a scapegoat.
Back in 2005, when the economy was flourishing (Remember?), the McCain-Kennedy Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) bill was co-sponsored by a bipartisan coalition of Senators including Republicans like Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Mel Martinez of Florida and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, not to mention an obscure Democrat freshman from Illinois by the name of Barack Obama.
In the 2008 Presidential elections, Senator Obama promised to push for CIR, and the Latino vote in states like Colorado and New Mexico helped propel him to victory. However, the new President inherited an economy on the verge of collapse. And despite the efforts of the President and the Congress to stimulate the economy, the percentage of Americans who are unemployed remains stubbornly high.
It has become a popular campaign tactic to blame undocumented workers from Mexico for our present economic distress. Signing Arizona's racial-profiling immigration law turned the state's unpopular Governor into a shoo-in in the 2010 elections. Senator McCain's (R-AZ) 180-degree turnaround from a sponsor to a vocal opponent of CIR helped him to clinch the Republican nomination for Senator. Tom Tancredo, formerly the leader of the anti-immigration forces in the House of Representatives, is the Republican nominee for Governor of Colorado. In races across the U.S., candidates seek to burnish their anti-immigration credentials by having the infamous Sheriff Arpaio from Phoenix, Arizona come and speak to voters on their behalf.
The reason that CIR never got off the ground in the Senate in the past two years was not the fault of President Obama. It is because every single Republican, and even a few Democrats, opposes CIR. One would think that Latino voters would be up in arms about this, and vote to "throw the bums out".
However, a poll released this week indicates that only 51% of Latino registered voters said that they would go to the polls as compared to 70% of voters overall.
Unless Latino voters get energized quickly, we can forget CIR and the DREAM Act. The next Congress is apt to be controlled by anti-immigrant zealots who will do their best to pass "enforcement-only" immigration bills. Stay tuned for national racial profiling laws, a vastly increased budget for immigration enforcement, mandatory E-Verify and an end to birthright citizenship. Hopefully, President Obama would veto such legislation. However, immigration advocates remember all too well President Clinton's signing of the notoriously anti-immigrant law of 1996, something we have yet to recover from.
Latinos should bear in mind that they are the fastest growing demographic among American voters. After Governor Pete Wilson (R-CA) rode to re-election in California in 1994 on the strength of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, Latinos registered to vote in record numbers and made California an pro-immigrant state in short order. Today, once candidates emerge victorious in the Golden State from the Republican primaries, they immediately start running campaign ads in Spanish and proclaim they are "amigos" of the Latino community. No politician in California can ignore Latino voters.
Let's hope that this time, Latino and other pro-immigrant voters exercise their power in the 2010 elections, not just afterwards.