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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Immigration Politics

In The New York Times "Room for Debate" blog, I write:

Immigration politics is about a series of divides that are hard to bridge. The first divide separates the two parties. Republicans tend to put border security first while Democrats tend to support measures such as the Dream Act.

This divide is not airtight, however, as there is a range of views in both parties. So a second divide comes into play -- the one between the House and the Senate. James Madison wrote that our bicameral system would render the two chambers “as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit.”

House members generally represent smaller, less diverse constituencies than senators, so their political perspective on the issue may be different. A number of Republican senators represent states with substantial Hispanic populations, whereas Republican House members generally have few Hispanic constituents. Accordingly, House Republicans are more likely to take a hard line on immigration issues. Conversely, dozens of House Democrats come from predominantly Hispanic districts, and they tend to take a more liberal position.

A third divide lies between the general public and activists in both ideological camps. The public is conflicted and ambivalent, with some polls showing support for tough measures such as the Arizona law, and other polls finding majorities in favor of a path to citizenship. The activists have no such mixed feelings, and they readily question each other’s motives.

It’s easy to understand why passions run so high among the activists. On some issues, particularly those involving taxes and spending, it’s quite possible to split differences. Immigration, however, involves matters of deep questions of who we are as a country and how we identify ourselves as individuals.

At the state level, some other factors also come into play. In the first half of 2010, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lawmakers in 44 states enacted 319 measures relating to immigrants and refugees. Why were states able to act when Congress did not? First, these measures dealt with narrow and specific parts of the issue, whereas the greater challenge of comprehensive immigration reform is the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress. Second, in many cases, immigration spawned local issues that lawmakers felt pressure to address.

The states cannot solve the problem alone, and their officials will keep pressing for federal action. The federal government, in turn, can check state actions that potentially violate the U.S. Constitution. In an imperfect way, the issue illustrates the "double security" that Madison identified as an advantage of federalism.