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The political math of immigration

Joan Jimenez Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood waits for an immigratiprotest start with ICIRR (Illinois Coalitifor Immigrant Refugee Rights) intersectiClark street

Joan Jimenez of Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood waits for a an immigration protest to start with the ICIRR (Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights) at the intersection of Clark street and Congress Parkway on Wednesday, November 6, 2013. | Michael Jarecki/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 14, 2013 6:24AM



If you like your president, you’re going to be able to keep him.

In fact, even if you don’t like your president, you’re going to keep him. He’s not like health insurance.

He’s here until Jan. 20, 2017, with no cancellation notices going out in the mail.

The president not only knows this, he has started talking about it. Friday, at a fundraiser in Florida, he said: “I’ve run my last election. And along with the gray hair, what comes with being president is that you take the long view and you start thinking about 10 years from now or 20 years from now or 30 years from now.”

Except not really. Barack Obama is an activist president who still has an agenda to pass in his second term, and he is thinking about 10 months, 20 months and 30 months from now.

And in his second term, he wants a big legacy issue, like health care was in his first term. He wants immigration reform and a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers in the United States.

At one time, this did not look so difficult. Politically, immigration reform helps both parties.

It is now clear, however, that there is a group of Republicans in the House, the so-called Kamikaze Caucus, that will vote against anything that Obama wants, even if it helps Republicans, too.

The Senate has passed a comprehensive immigration bill, but the House wants to chop it up into separate bills and deal with it piecemeal.

Why piecemeal? Let’s say House Republicans pass a law making E-Verify mandatory instead of voluntary. E-Verify is an Internet-based system used by some employers to determine if a job applicant is in the United States legally. (It is far from flawless, producing both false positives and false negatives, but it’s the best thing we’ve got.)

Democrats say, whoa, if you make E-Verify mandatory, without giving legal status to the 11 million already here, the system will be used just to deport people. If undocumented workers come out of the shadows, they will be “self-deporting.”

Republicans are also very big on securing our 2,000-mile border with Mexico, some wanting to make an absolutely secure border a necessity before anybody already in the United States gets legalized. (Nobody much cares about our 5,500-mile border with Canada.)

The current plan is to spend an incredible $46.3 billion for security along our southern border, about $30 billion of which is to double our number of border agents to 41,000.

A force of 41,000 to secure a 2,000-mile strip is a big security force. (We currently are using 48,000 U.S. troops to secure all of Afghanistan, which is 252,000 square miles.)

Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who helped write the Senate bill providing for all that security, said recently it was mostly political hooey.

“I’ll give you a little straight talk, we don’t need 20,000 additional Border Patrol agents,” McCain told the AFL-CIO. “I voted for it so friends of mine would have comfort that we are securing the border. But the real securing of the border is with technology as opposed to individuals, although we do certainly need individuals.”

Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page is not happy with the planned border security “surge.” Its editorial stated: “Here’s the real story: For some Republicans, border security has become a ruse to kill reform. The border could be defended by the 10th Mountain Division and Claymore antipersonnel mines and it wouldn’t be secure enough. As we noted last month
. . . the U.S.-Mexico border is more secure today than it has been in decades. According to Border Patrol statistics, illegal entries are at a 40-year low.”

But some Republicans are insisting on the piecemeal approach and the security ruse, even though there is a very good reason for Republicans to pass immigration reform.

That reason is math.

Take the four U.S. megastates: California, Texas, New York and Florida. California and New York are safely Democratic in presidential elections. Florida went Democratic in the past two presidential elections. Texas has been safely Republican.

But what if currently red Texas starts turning Democratic blue given the increase in the Hispanic vote? Not overnight. But eventually, inexorably.

If the Democrats could be assured of victory in all four megastates, it would give them 56 percent of the 270 electoral votes they need to elect a president, an enormous advantage.

“When Texas is purple, there will be no more Republican presidents,” an immigration expert told me Monday.

The expert also said that if comprehensive immigration reform is dead in this Congress — and it looks like it could very well be — it could pass in an election year or even by a lame-duck Congress. Obama has said he will sign any bill that includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million.

This could be his legacy and, ironically, the only hope the Republicans have to be more than a whites-only party, rowing against a demographic tide.

“If the Republicans decided to pass it,” Obama said Friday of immigration reform, “it would be to their political advantage to do it.”

The Republicans in the House could continue to hold out and hope for a Republican White House in 2016. But every election they delay immigration reform puts the White House further from their grasp.



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