Saturday, August 3, 2013

Online Symposium: Comprehensive Immigration Reform: The Irreducible Political Consequences by Gabriel “Jack” Chin



Tea Party Republicans may be in the process of doing something that progressive groups and politicians have dreamed of for decades but never quite achieved: Creating solidarity and shared perspective among the diverse non-white peoples of the United States. Conservative Republicans are taking positions on immigration and voting rights that the vast majority of non-whites consider deeply and fundamentally unfair. If the unthinkable happens and comprehensive immigration reform fails, the consequences may still be significant and long-lasting.

America’s minority groups are diverse on a variety of measures; there is no intrinsic reason that they should share interests or political views, or align with one party. Asian Pacific Americans, for example, have a variety of religious, language and national backgrounds. Latinos typically share a language but also have diverse national origins, from Puerto Rico in the Atlantic to the Philippines in the Pacific. Native Americans have an historical relationship with the federal government in common, but also belong to a variety of nations with a diverse experiences languages and traditions, and of course, live all over the continent. Historically, African Americans have had much in common, a super-majority being the descendants of formerly enslaved persons, but the group increasingly encompasses immigrants and their descendants. Within each ethnic group, some subgroups and communities are affluent, others much less so.

These circumstances would seem to be a recipe for political diversity, and therefore for minorities to swing. On issues like taxes, abortion, national defense, climate change, and water fluoridation, minorities will be found across the spectrum. Republicans, though, have decided to focus on issues which make these groups huddle together, immigration and voting rights.

Now that the Supreme Court has struck down important parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the nation watches expectantly to see what Congress will do. One major possibility is that it will do nothing.

And notwithstanding the long tradition of amnesty in U.S. immigration law, it is not out of the question that Tea Party Republicans will sabotage immigration reform rather than give “amnesty” to “criminals.” It took a lot to get comprehensive immigration reform through the Senate. In the House, conservatives threaten to block reform if it contains a path to citizenship for the millions of unauthorized migrants in the United States; many extremists are in safe seats, confident of reelection without a single non-white vote, so they need not think about appealing to anyone else.

In spite of their diversity on other questions, large majorities of people of color are likely to be of one mind on these issues. The reason is simple: It may well be that in the entire history of the United States, no state or federal law denied a single white person, on the basis of race, the right to vote, to become a naturalized citizen, or to have their immigration status regularized. To be sure, Catholics and Jews suffered unjustified restrictions on their immigration between 1924 and 1965, but as a general matter, these things are simply not part of the white experience.

On the other hand, immigration and naturalization restriction and racial voter suppression is part of the history and family experience of all minority groups, Africans and Indigenous people not excluded. Republicans could choose to let these memories disappear, by demonstrating that the policies are anachronistic, irrelevant to a modern America where race is far less important. Instead, Republicans seem to be reviving the importance of race in the public realm.

No matter how comfortable, assimilated and protected by birthright citizenship they may be, many Americans of minority background will conclude that opposition to opposition to a path to citizenship for the undocumented is tinged with racial considerations. And whatever their individual situation, minorities are likely to see the shenanigans surrounding voting from the perspective of people whose families and communities know about tricks justified by laws, where those tricks come from, and why. The immigration and voting rights issues translate to the question of whether non-white people are legitimate members of the political community and should be allowed to be here. On these issues, people of color will be unified, and for many, these issues will take precedence over all others.

America’s future is diverse; because of the 1965 Immigration Act, Asians and Latinos are turning this “nation of immigrants” from a “nation of white immigrations” to a country of people from all nations of G-d’s green earth. Whatever happens with immigration reform and the Voting Rights Act, conservative Republicans may well ensure that these growing American communities are not swing voters, but, in self-defense, if for no other reason, see themselves as minorities, and see minorities as being naturally anti-Republican.


Gabriel “Jack” Chin is Professor of Law at UC Davis School of Law.

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