Analysis

Immigration debate explodes despite voter desire for change

Partisan wrangle over Obama immigration plan masks broad support for changes among Americans

Far from settling matters, President Obama’s unilateral action on immigration all but ensures at least two more years of fierce and angry debate over one of the most contentious and polarizing issues facing the country.

It is a debate that presents opportunity and political risk to both parties, but especially Republicans, who are deeply divided among themselves and badly need to mend relations with a Latino and Asian American population growing bigger and more politically powerful each day.

And, with the loudest, most strident voices likely to dominate the discussion, it is a debate that will continue to mask a broad consensus among Americans, who want compromise and a fix to a decades-old problem — fashioned by Congress and the president working in tandem — rather than more of the partisan brick-throwing that has escalated over the past several days.

Exit polls this month found that nearly six in 10 voters supported legislation that would go further than Obama’s plan by establishing a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million people in the country illegally — a striking ratio for a largely white, GOP-leaning electorate that swept Republicans to power across the country on Nov. 4.

Even here in Arizona, a state known for taking one of the hardest lines on illegal immigration, there is a strong desire to see the political skirmishing end.

“People want a solution,” said Chuck Coughlin, a GOP strategist who has advised two of the state’s top Republicans, Sen. John McCain and Gov. Jan Brewer, who have sometimes worked at cross-purposes on the issue. “They’re tired of the partisan stalemate and the finger-pointing by both sides.”

Immigration is a uniquely difficult and emotional issue, freighted with the weight of family ties and two broad, sometimes conflicting impulses. The United States, as the president suggested in his speech Thursday night, is both a land of laws and a nation of immigrants; squaring that circle and finding agreement somewhere in the middle has exceeded both the imagination and capacity of elected leaders for a generation.

Obama was never going to placate all sides by going it alone, a move he says was forced upon him by hostile, intransigent Republicans in Congress. What he has done, though, has heightened tensions in the short term and cast the conflict forward into the race to succeed him, placing every White House hopeful on the spot for the next two years.

Because Obama’s actions are not binding on his successor “the next president is going to have to decide whether to continue these policies after 2017,” said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist who conducts extensive polling among Latinos nationwide. “Whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Chris Christie or Marco Rubio, they’re all going to have to take a position, because it’s a policy that the next president, through his or her executive power, will be overseeing.”

The danger Democrats face is alienating the white working-class voters who have never much cared for the president and who could view the influx of newly hirable immigrants as unwelcome job competition.

Moreover there are voters of all stripe who recoil from the notion of rewarding — or at least excusing — those who break the law, which is how many critics portrayed the outcome of Obama’s single-handed move.

Earlier this month, on the same day that they legalized recreational marijuana, Oregon voters overwhelmingly rescinded a law that would have granted driver’s licenses to people in the country illegally — a sign that the immigration issue is fraught even in deeply blue states.

But balancing out those risks is the considerable upside for Democrats, who have increasingly come to rely on a large, enthusiastic turnout of Latino and Asia American supporters, especially in presidential races; it was no coincidence that Obama flew to Las Vegas on Friday for a rally to celebrate his executive action benefiting those communities.

Nevada, like next-door California, is a state that has been recast politically in recent years by a surge of Democratic-leaning Latino voters. They twice helped deliver the Silver State to Obama and boosted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the GOP landslide year of 2010; he could face another tough reelection fight in 2016.

For Republicans, the politics are more complicated.

The party has a dismal image among Latinos — nearly two-thirds believe Republicans either do not care about them or are openly hostile, according to a recent poll by Barreto’s firm, Latino Decisions — and, perhaps more problematic, there is a deep schism within the GOP over how, and even whether, to address the problem.

A substantial portion of the party base believes border security and unsparing enforcement of immigration laws are paramount and all that Republicans should pursue. (Given the unending appetite for conflict, these are the voices often featured on talk radio and the cable TV shows.)

Others in the party, including, most importantly, the business community, favor a definitive resolution that would normalize the status of immigrant workers in legal limbo and ensure a steady labor supply for industries such as agriculture through a reliable guest-worker program.

Some Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, another 2016 prospect, speak of the moral dimensions of fixing the immigration system. Crossing the border illegally in search of sustenance is “not a felony,” he has said. “It’s an act of love.” (He did, however, sharply criticize Obama’s unilateral move as one that “undermines all efforts to forge a permanent solution.”)

Arizona has spent years on the front line of the issue, as both a major entry point for people coming into the country illegally and the home of two of the debate's most prominent participants: McCain, a longtime advocate of bipartisan overhaul legislation, and Brewer, who implemented a series of stiff crackdown measures that gained her nationwide celebrity, support and opprobrium.

Her newly elected successor, Republican state Treasurer and businessman Doug Ducey, has consciously shunned Brewer’s inflammatory approach, preferring to focus on economic development and other issues. He issued a brief, relatively measured statement Thursday after Obama's immigration speech, urging cooperation toward a bipartisan solution.

By contrast, Brewer, who has spent much of her term jousting with Obama, released a blistering news release just moments into the president's remarks, likening him to “a tyrannical king.” Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has also clashed with the Obama administration over his aggressive prosecution of immigration laws, filed suit against the president before the sun had even risen over Arizona.

It was like the dawning of an old day.

Twitter: @markzbarabak

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