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.