Supporting immigrants’ rights is not political suicide

The Republican Party is spouting vile hatred for immigrants, especially those who have dark skins but don’t have papers. The punditry would have us believe that supporting rights for immigrants is “political suicide” in this election year.

One hundred and three members of the House of Representatives, all Democrats, are signed on as cosponsors of HR 4321, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform ASAP bill, whose chief sponsor is Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, and which is supported by most of organized labor and immigrants’ rights organizations. (You can look up this or any other bill in Congress online). 

By sticking their necks out for immigration reform, have these 103 valiant souls committed “political suicide?”

A good resource for following these things is the Cook Political Report. It rates all the House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates in terms of the probability of winning their elections. Look at the “Competitive House Race Chart” on that website, and you will see that of currently Democratic seats that are likely to be lost to Republicans (in Cook’s “lean Republican” and “likely Republican” columns) there is not one single seat that now belongs to one of the cosponsors of HR 4321. There are a total of five Democrats in the “likely Republican” column, and 17 in the “lean Republican” columns.

If you look at current Democrat held seats rated by Cook as toss-ups (could as easily go either to the Democrat or the Republican), you will see that three of the cosponsors of HR 4321 are in this category: Most important is Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. He is indeed an outstanding legislator on this and many other topics, including labor, environmental and foreign policy issues. The other two are Reps. John Salazar, D-Colo., and Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas. This is out of 46 Democrats in that category.

In the “lean Democratic” column, which means the Democrat is slightly favored but by no means secure, there are four endangered seats: Those of Reps. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., an open seat in Rhode Island’s 1st District. This is out of 28 Democratic seats in that column.

Finally, there is the “likely Democratic” column. These are seats that will probably go to the Democrat, but special circumstances could change that. This column includes Reps. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, Barney Frank, D-Mass., Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., and Solomon Ortiz (the bill’s main sponsor), D-Texas.

All the rest of the bill’s cosponsors, 93 in all (five of whom are non-voting representatives of U.S. territories, so let’s say 88) are considered to be occupying safe seats. Eighty-eight safe seats to 10 that are likely or leaning Republican, toss-ups, or likely or leaning Democratic.  

And many Democrats who have avoided the issue of immigrants’ rights like the plague are doing poorly. Several of them are in the “likely Republican” and “lean Republican” columns. 

Now, we can’t jump to the conclusion that Democrats who are doing poorly are suffering for their bad records on immigrants’ rights, and those who are doing well are being rewarded for their support for immigrants’ rights. A lot depends, for example, on the demographics and ideological makeup of the inhabitants of the congressional district in question, and the state of the political debate on many other issues. In Virginia, the two Democratic Congressmen who are co-sponsoring HR 4321, Reps. James Moran, D-Va. and Bobby Scott, D-Va., would probably have safe seats anyway, as they represent multiracial and multiethnic urban concentrations with a strong working-class presence. And some of the Democrats in conservative areas would be in trouble no matter what their position on immigration.

But we can conclude that the issue is not necessarily a career killer for those politicians who have a good record and a well-organized electoral operation. Taking a principled stand may lose you certain votes, but it will likely win you others.

It is extremely important for the immigrants’ rights movement that any Republican gains be kept to a minimum or stopped, and that they not be allowed to take over either the House or the Senate. If that happens, the door will be opened to the advancement of all kinds of anti-immigrant legislation which has not advanced under the present Congress. Although pro-immigrant legislation has also not succeeded over the last couple of years, a Republican takeover of the leadership and committee chairmanships of House and Senate would stop any advancement of immigrant-friendly legislation.

It is also very important, as a practical matter and also one of honor, that those members of Congress who have worked hard for immigration reform, such as Grijalva of Arizona, receive maximum support.

Photo: New Yorkers rally for comprehensive immigration reform. (By Boss Tweed, courtesy Flickr, cc by 2.0)


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.