For all the talk in recent Republican debates about Israel and Iran, it's a third "I" that will likely have the more significant impact on the 2012 election -- immigration (particularly of the illegal variety). For conservative activists, it is one of the issues that shapes their anger toward President Barack Obama. But whatever you think of the policy, it's the politics that matter -- and immigration is one of the key reasons Obama is likely to once again decisively win the nation's Hispanic vote.
That represents an odd turn of events. Obama's track record on immigration has hardly been a boon for Hispanics. Since taking office, enforcement of immigration laws has significantly ramped up. In all, more than 1.1 million illegal residents have been deported since Obama took office, the highest level of deportations in 60 years. Last year alone, 400,000 illegal immigrants were sent home -- a record high. In fact, Obama is on pace to deport more illegal immigrants in one term than the previous president did in two.
At the same time, the undocumented population has declined dramatically -- from more than 12 million in 2007 to just over 11 million today (and it's not because the U.S. government is suddenly handing over tons of green cards). Each year, roughly 150,000 illegal immigrants enter the country from Mexico -- during the first half of the past decade it was around 500,000 a year. While this drop is largely the result of poor economic prospects in the United States and better economic opportunities in Mexico, increased deportations has certainly done its part. And don't think these developments aren't being felt within the Hispanic community.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, one in four Hispanics either know someone who has been deported or is in removal proceedings -- and they overwhelmingly disapprove of the president's enforcement policies. So if anything, the Republican opposition to the president's immigration stance shouldn't be that he's been too soft -- but his policies are too harsh and do too little to provide illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship. But you're unlikely to hear very much of that message on the campaign trail this year.
While Obama recently raised the issue of immigration reform in his State of the Union address, he has had little success in crafting a legislative path to reform (like many of his first term initiatives, it crashed on the shoals of Republican obstructionism). Rather, the instrumental effect of his policies has been to make life much more difficult for illegal immigrants.
Still, none of this has stopped the remaining Republican candidates from falling over themselves to blast the president's soft stance. Each of them have pledged that if they are elected president, the border will be more secure, enforcement will be stepped up, and citizenship for illegal immigrants will not be part of the equation. The immigration issue has become such a lightning rod in the GOP that it is now practically conventional political wisdom that Texas Gov. Rick Perry's presidential campaign was short-circuited by his defense of in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants and his charge of "heartlessness" against those opposed to such a policy.
How does one explain this divide between rhetoric and reality? In an important new book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Harvard political sociologists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson argue that the anti-immigrant narrative is being driven, in large measure, by the views of the Republican base -- and in particular the Tea Party wing. According to a comprehensive 2010 national poll, illegal immigration is considered a "very serious" issue for an extraordinary 82 percent of Tea Partiers.
Traditionally, concerns about immigration, particularly in times of economic distress, tend to focus on the impact of newcomers "taking jobs" from native-born residents or are oriented around racial animus. While that is certainly a factor in Tea Party attitudes, there may be other symbolic and moral factors at work. According to Skocpol and Williamson (who interviewed countless members of the Tea Party), the major concern over immigration was related less to jobs and more to the issue of fairness, particularly "the costly use of government funds and services by illegal immigrants. Tea Party members base their moral condemnation on the fact that these are ‘lawbreakers' who crossed the border without permission and thus are using American resources unfairly."