It is natural to express disfavor with a political party when they have not (yet) fulfilled a campaign promise. Indeed many of the demonstrators at Saturday’s immigration rally did just that. They threatened to stay home on Election Day or even defect to a third party (none threatened to vote Republican) if their demands are not met. There are a few reasons why not only this strategy but this message is misguided and can be detrimental to the cause of immigrants.
This Congress has already tackled two incredibly time consuming and politically charged issues this calendar year: health care reform and financial reform. Many judicial and administrative appointees remain to be considered before the legislative recess and subsequent election season. House Republican Leader John Boehner, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and President Obama have all indicated that major immigration reform is unlikely to be considered this year. Demanding action at the threat of staying home on Election Day is not going to change that fact.
Yet some protesters and organizers seem to think it will, which creates a strategic problem. Explaining this pitfall must begin at an obvious truth: Democrats cannot legislate immigration reform if they are not in office and Republicans are unlikely to implement a reform that most immigrants’ rights activists agree with.
The organizers, of course, know this. The Democratic lawmakers also know this. What’s more, the Democrats know that the organizers know this. Therefore, they are unlikely to take threats to unseat them if they do not immediately comply with calls for immigration reform seriously, or at least seriously enough to risk the political ramifications of passing another sweeping reform this year. For them, there is greater risk in taking action than in putting it off until next year.
Therefore, not only will Democratic congressmen not bow to pressure from the rally, they are unlikely to even consider it a credible threat. After all, who would immigrants’ rights supporters turn to otherwise?
While both immigration rally organizers and Democratic politicians may have already considered the ramifications of each action in this drama, the average Latino voter is a different story. They are already less likely to vote on Election Day, having an average of 7.1% lower turnouts than white voters in California in the last 5 election cycles (8.2% if one excludes 2008, which had an exceptional jump in Latino voters, and 10.6% if one only counts midterm elections). To actually encourage them to stay home, even if it is only meant as a threat for the ears of politicians, runs the very real risk of causing Democrats to be voted out of office in favor of Republicans.
Republicans are also feeling pressure on immigration reform, pressure which caused the passage of Arizona SB1070. They are likely to address the issue but are unlikely to come to a solution that is even remotely acceptable to Latinos, maybe even pushing the status quo in the direction of Arizona.
Even though the Democrats have yet to act on immigration, their continued presence in Washington is the best chance that the immigrant community has for an equitable reform. To throw away the gains of 2008 would be foolishly shortsighted. This is not to say that Democrats should be given a free ticket to Washington every election in the hopes that someday they will take up the immigration issue. But voting them out of power after only 2 years is detrimental to the ultimate goal of immigration reform.