When Jesse Gabriel, an alumnus from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ New Leaders Project, explained why he and two other members of the 2012 cohort decided to host a discussion of immigration reform on April 23, he said they selected the topic precisely “because we know it’s so divisive.” But Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the first speaker on Tuesday evening, immediately challenged the assertion.
“It might have been, 10 years ago and 15 years ago,” said Villaraigosa, who is set to leave his position at the end of June. “People kind of get that we’ve got to do something with 11 million people that are working here.”
Villaraigosa was referring to the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally who would, under a bill introduced on April 16 by a bipartisan “gang of eight” senators, be given a path to citizenship.
And while it’s impossible to say how the bill will fly nationwide or how it will fare in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, there appeared to be significant common ground in the discussion at Federation headquarters between local political players from both parties.
“We’re living in a more diverse environment,” said moderator Dan Schnur, explaining why positions on immigration reform may have moderated significantly in recent years.
Schnur, who is director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, which co-organized Tuesday evening’s event, served as national communications director for Sen. John McCain’s failed 2000 Presidential bid. But while Schnur and panelist Mike Madrid, a Republican expert on Latino voting trends, seemed chastened by the experience of watching their party’s Presidential nominee lose the Latino vote last year by a 40-point margin, neither one assumed that GOP congressmen or the party’s white, aging voter base would share their moderated perspective on immigration.
Though support for comprehensive immigration reform is now hanging at around 72 percent in California and over 65 percent nationwide, Madrid said that attack ads aimed at voters in Republican house districts would have eat into that support.
“When you start hearing this framed as ‘Amnesty,’” Madrid said, “you’re going to start seeing public opinion start to get a little bit shaky.”
The bill that will be brought before the Senate does have elements that bother Democrats, as well. Villaraigosa said he disliked the length of time – 13 years – that it would take immigrants to achieve full citizenship, and questioned the bill’s spending $4.5 billion in increased border security. The mayor said that the overall reform measures were worth compromising on those elements.
Hector de la Torre, who spent six years as a Democrat in the California Assembly, said he was concerned about the proposed bill’s provision that would allow more than 400,000 guest workers to enter the country without a path to citizenship.
“My grandfather was a bracero,” De La Torre said, referring to the program that brought millions of Mexican guest workers to harvest produce in the United States between 1942 and 1964. “He was treated like an indentured servant.”
“That is my strong opposition to guest-worker type programs,” De La Torre continued. “Unless they are fully endowed with civil rights in this country, I don’t buy it, I don’t get it. And if I was [in Congress] I would be having a very hard time with that piece of it.”
That said, De La Torre acknowledged that members of his party are lining up in favor of the bill, and there appears to be more momentum now than there was in 2007, the last time that Congress considered immigration reform legislation. Labor and business groups have come out in favor of the proposed legislation – which did not happen in 2007 – and leaders in the Republican party have the 2012 election results foremost in their minds.
Whether Republican voters will go along with such a change of heart is unclear.
“When you tell voters to change their opinions on something because it’s the right thing to do politically, that’s not always the most effective route to take,” Schnur said.
There is an economic argument to be made in favor of immigration reform that both Democrats and Republicans could get behind. An influx of young immigrants, Madrid said, could help buttress the country’s social safety net, keeping Medicare and Social Security solvent even as the U.S. population ages. De La Torre said that in the first three years of the program, the overall GDP could grow as much as 1.3 percent annually.
But many GOP congressmen in deeply red districts won’t necessarily have an incentive in the near term to take a more permissive view of immigration reform. Everyone who spoke on Tuesday night agreed that the success or failure of the immigration bill will be determined by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and specifically by House Speaker John Boehner.
If the bill gets to the floor of Congress, Villaraigosa predicted that the chamber will take a number of trial votes to consider amendments to make the bill more stringent – and thereby more palatable to GOP congressmen.
But its fate depends on whether Speaker Boehner allows the bill go to a vote in the first place.
“If he’s not willing to do that, it’ll die,” Villaraigosa said, adding that if the bill becomes overly harsh, representatives from his party might just take a pass.
“Democrats will just wait for another election,” the mayor said.