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Weekly Diaspora: Will immigration reform bills bring voters to the polls?

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Riding the media blitz that followed the DREAM Act’s recent defeat, Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) unveiled their own comprehensive immigration reform bills just before Congress adjourned last week. The bills are enforcement-heavy, party-line bills that were immediately referred to committee, where they are expected to languish for some time.

Few expect much to come of either bill, given their untimely introduction and the broad failure of previous immigration reform efforts. Rather, these bills are perceived as last-ditch attempts to score political points before midterm elections. The Menendez bill could net support for Democrats from an increasingly unmotivated Latino electorate, conversely, Hatch’s bill reinforces the hard-line immigration stance so popular among Republican voters.

The Menendez Bill: Two steps forward, one step back

While the Menendez bill was introduced with the strong support of major immigration reform groups like the National Immigration Forum, others regard it as a disappointing mixed bag of talking points.

The bill has several high points, like its inclusion of AgJOBS and the DREAM Act, but is heavy on the kinds of federal immigration enforcement that immigrant rights advocates abhor. As Prerna Lal at Change.org writes:

[The bill] starts with border enforcement, followed by interior enforcement, then worksite enforcement, before actually reforming the system and moving forward with the legalization of undocumented immigrants. […] The biggest downfall of the bill is probably that it does not do much to address the ever-growing immigrant detention complex and, instead, mandates a system that criminalizes immigrants.

Likening it to the failed Schumer-Graham bill of last spring, Lal notes that the bill’s prioritization of enforcement isn’t bi-partisan so much as a slap in the face of those who have fought hardest for comprehensive reform. Nevertheless, the Menendez Bill succeeds where its Democratic predecessor -- the Guttieriez bill -- failed: It provides a path to citizenship for undocumented partners of LGBT citizens.

While it remains unlikely that the bill will ever become law as is, Menendez introduced it into Senate to remind Latinos which party is on their side this election season.

The Hatch Bill: Revving up the base with more of the same

Orrin Hatch admits even more frankly that he only introduced an immigration bill because he wanted to stir up his base. In his own words, the bill is “just for show.”

Accordingly -- and as Elise Foley of the Washington Independent notes -- his bill doesn’t do much of anything except reinforce existing immigration laws and practices:

Immigration advocacy groups were critical of the bill, calling it “dog whistle rhetoric” to gin up his base. “His bill doesn’t offer serious solutions,” Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum said in a press release. “Instead it duplicates work already being done on enforcement and won’t solve the crisis it purports to address.”

The bill does propose boosting enforcement in some areas -- for instance, requiring all law enforcement agencies to deputize their officers as immigration agents -- but on the whole appears to be little more than the political ploy Hatch says it is.

Where are the Latino voters?

Whether either bill will have much of an impact on voters, however, is up for debate. A new report released by the Pew Hispanic Center reveals that, while Latino voters still largely identify as Democrats, they are much less motivated to cast their ballots this year than they have been in the past two elections. The finding is a surprising one, as reform advocates have been working hard to galvanize the Latino constituency against increasing anti-immigrant sentiment.

But weak voter motivation may have less to do with politics and more to do with the pressures accompanying a bad economy. As I wrote for Campus Progress, populations that were disproportionately hurt by the recession seem to have less overall interest in voting this November.

In particular, Latino voters with close ties to undocumented workers are experiencing some of the worst voter fallout from the recession and, under the circumstances, are becoming politically disaffected despite the highly politicized immigration debate.

Rather than motivating the bulk of Latino voters, all of the controversy surrounding anti-immigrant sentiment and policies are instead fomenting an agitated conservative base. At ColorLines, Jamilah King astutely notes that, “while Democrats had hoped incendiary anti-immigrant legislation like SB 1070 would encourage voters to come out against Republicans in protest, it seems that the opposite is happening.”

Instead, controversy surrounding SB 1070 and other measures are generating strong support among conservatives. Maricopa County, AZ Sheriff Joe Arpaio, once the figurehead of immigration enforcement in the U.S., is now proclaiming himself to be the “poster boy” of immigration as he tours the country endorsing a slew of radical conservative candidates.

There they are!

Nevertheless, reform advocates are optimistic about both the power and the will of the Latino electorate.

According to Valerie Fernandez at New America Media, organizers are registering record numbers of Latinos this year. In Arizona, where voter registration closed on Monday, a coalition of ten groups claims to have registered 22,000 new voters. It’s a remarkable accomplishment. Latino voters make up only 15 per cent of all registered voters in Arizona, despite the fact that Latinos comprise 30 per cent of the state’s population. 22,000 new voters could effectively double the number of Latinos voting in the state, and may significantly impact the election’s outcome.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Pulse . This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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