Immigration Reform Support from the Far Right? It’s Not Impossible

A recent poll published by the Public Religion Research Institute puts the number of Americans supporting a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants at 63%, compared to only 18% wanting to deport them and 14% supporting legal residence but not citizenship.  While questions can be raised about whether the survey is biased, it seems that the majority of Americans are open to liberal immigration reform.  The problem, however, is that many of those opposed to liberal reform are concentrated in individual and often gerrymandered Congressional districts.  The representatives of these districts are thus unlikely to support any type of immigration reform that prioritizes citizenship over border control, lest they risk losing electoral support from their conservative constituents.

I’ve already written about how members of Congress in districts with high Hispanic populations have become more open to reform because of electoral pressure from interest groups.  Now, however, advocates for immigration reform are also targeting members from highly conservative districts.  While this may initially seem like a waste of time and money, there are two more subtle variables at play that may help pro-immigration factions succeed.

The first is the ambitions of Congressmen beyond their current job; many Congressmen aspire to run for governor or Senator in the relatively near future.  With statewide ambitions come statewide constituencies, which almost always will be more liberal than the conservative districts these members currently serve.  Even though opposing immigration reform may be sufficient to keep these Congressmen in their current offices, it may have potential consequences on their future ambitions.  Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL) perfectly illustrates this situation: he currently serves Illinois’ 18th district, which has had a Republican Congressman since 1939.  Should Schock support the immigration status quo, he will not lost any significant number of votes in his upcoming elections.  It is rumored, however, that Schock is considering a run for governor or Senator in a few years where he will face the entire voting population of Illinois, which has voted Democrat in Presidential elections since 1992.  In order to win over this voting base, then, it may be necessary for Schock to support immigration reform.  As a result, Schock must balance his short- and long-term goals; if he wants to run for governor or Senator, he must become more moderate on immigration reform, but he cannot lose his current seat, so he cannot go all in on immigration reform.  Although this is a very specific situation that applies to very few current members of Congress, every vote will count when the House finally votes on legislation, so these efforts are not in vain.

The other variable that current members of Congress have to think about is the 2020 Census.  Though they may serve gerrymandered conservative districts now, come 2021, that could all change.  While it is certainly a stretch to say that voters in 2022 will vote based on what these members do in 2014, it is not implausible to think that it may have a small effect, especially if opposition to immigration reform is used as part of a package of negative choices used in attack ads by opposing candidates.

While it may not win over many, the current efforts to sway members of Congress from conservative districts are far from futile.  By reminding these members that they will not be electorally secure forever, these groups could make progress with members playing the long game, whether they are looking to run for a statewide office or are simply worried about losing their conservative district in 2021.  These efforts could win Democrats valuable Republican votes in the House.  Although the final outcome depends on many variables, probably most importantly whether the House votes on comprehensive or piecemeal reform bills, these votes could prove invaluable in bringing meaningful change to the American immigration system.

-Chris Gibson



9 responses to “Immigration Reform Support from the Far Right? It’s Not Impossible”

  1. caelegislativeblog says :

    I think immigration advocates have chosen a smart way to approach the situation. If legislators are unwilling to act, then highlighting the implications to future political goals could be an effective maneuver. However, the gerrymandering of districts is often done in favor of the incumbent politician. As long as the incumbent knows that he/she will stay in a position of power, then there is less of a chance that changes in demographics will alter the behavior of congress members.

    -Arthur Townsend

    • legprocess says :

      I agree that targeting future political goals is a smart way to encourage legislators. While gerrymandering is typically done in favor of the incumbent, I think the issue being targeted in the blog post is the goal of higher political status. The governor or senate race is broadcasted to a much larger audience, and in turn an audience with much more diverse political beliefs. Immigration will remain a prominent issue in these races, and I think the unknown here is whether or not current representatives are going to move towards the middle on immigration (or move to act faster) in order to appeal to the large electorate of the governor or senators race.

  2. legprocess says :

    When discussing gerrymandering and immigration reform–we cannot forget that in creating pathways to citizenship you are adding a large group of previously ineligible voters to certain districts. While it is likely that the illegal immigrants/would be voters are more concentrated in districts that already have substantial hispanic population bases, it could be that they are also in districts that are seemingly homogenous from the voting population. With this influx of new citizens, it will also change the congressional seat allocation–so states with more new citizens will be granted additional seats at the expense of sparsely populated states.
    Sophie S.

    • legiprocess says :

      That’s a great point about the potential changes in district compositions. Even without changing the district’s layout, providing a pathway to citizenship will alter the makeup of voters living in them. It’s interesting, because if the Republicans living in those districts would support immigration reform they would probably stand a better chance at reelection once it passed. Maybe they think that the R next to their name would be a bigger handicap than their support for immigration reform would be a benefit? Maybe they like their district just the way it is? Or maybe it’s just an ideological thing. I really wonder whether it’s strict adherence to the party line or a cost/benefit decision that they’re making. Woo, that’s 24!

      – Will

      • caelegislativeblog says :

        Congrats on making it to 24. I’m slowly working my way there (#19)

        I guess I’d also like to add another explanation using terms we discussed in class. Consider the status quo to be the district they represent today. Representatives are quite happy with this status quo because it got them elected, as long as they appease their constituents the can keep their position. The new proposition is a change in the demographics of the districts to include more immigrant voters. The representative could side with immigration reform and possibly win these new voters over. If he/she could successfully win over these voters then it will cushion his/her position as a legislator, however if for some reason these new voters are still opposed to the representative then he/she has induced more competition in her district and made his/her position less stable and assured. The way the legislator chooses depends on his/her willingness to take a risk, but I predict that the legislator will choose to go with the status quo because it is closer to the ideal position of having an assured seat in the legislature.

        –Arthur Townsend

  3. caelegislativeblog says :

    I really like that you brought up the short term/long term goals up of Schock. I think that it is so easy to get caught up in the midterm election of 2014 or even the presidential election of 2016. But the gubernatorial race – it would be a brilliant move to vote for immigration reform. What will be interesting is how he fares switching from national legislature to state executive. – Erica

  4. Jane L. says :

    Arthur, regarding your additional explanation of the risk factor, I think it’s safe to assume that most people (including legislators) are risk averse. A Republican legislator in a homogeneously conservative district wouldn’t vote in favor of a left-leaning immigration reform bill unless he/she were very sure that the demographics of his/her district were going to change significantly or that he/she would need to vote that way to get elected as Senator/Governor later on. This could be an example of when inside lobbyists come into play to provide legislators with research, poll results, and other information about their own constituents that could influence their voting decision. But if the lobbyists fail to convince the legislators that they need to vote in a certain way in order to get reelected or elected to a larger position later on, then I don’t think the legislators would risk abandoning their current constituents.

  5. Brian N. says :

    I am going to have to disagree with your post here – elected officials very rarely are swayed by long-term trends when it would require them to act in a risky way. Their primary interest is in getting re-elected, remember, and they don’t particularly care about things several years down the line – they go up in election every two years, so they’ll deal with it later. Additionally, I highly doubt many of these people are in a position to predict with any accuracy what the redistricting process is going to look like come 2020, which means that it will have no effect on their decision making process.

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