- The Washington Times - Friday, November 30, 2012

Immigration has leapt to the forefront of political discussions after Latinos in key battleground states voted overwhelmingly for President Obama. The Republicans walked away with a clear message about the demographic realities of America and the future kingmaker clout of American Hispanics. This bloc will only become more influential in future elections. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics will account for 40 percent of the growth in the eligible electorate by 2030.

The president has said he expects to move on immigration in his second term, and key Republicans have signaled that they are willing to do so, too. Soon after the votes were tallied, House Speaker John A. Boehner suggested “a comprehensive approach is long overdue,” although he previously had resisted any broad rulings. Former Mississippi Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham are considering new approaches to immigration reform.

Democrats have their own hard-liners whom they will need to reel in. In September, Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith introduced a bill to retain highly skilled immigrants by allocating 55,000 green cards to graduates of master’s or doctoral programs from American universities. Only one Democrat, Texas Rep. Henry Cueller, supported the bill. Compromise will be required on both sides, and it won’t be easy.

The American people seem ready for their leaders to move on immigration reform. The 2012 Chicago Council nationwide public opinion survey found that for the first time in nearly two decades, only a minority of Americans considered illegal immigration a critical threat to U.S. vital interests. This marks a staggering 32-point decline since 1994.


The polling also shows that Midwesterners feel slightly more threatened by unauthorized immigration than do people in other regions of the country. Yet nearly half of Midwesterners would allow unauthorized immigrants who are working in the United States to stay in the country (with either a path to citizenship or a work permit, but no citizenship). Nearly half also support expanding immigrant work visas for seasonal and low-skill jobs.

Most important, support for reform rises to majority levels among Midwesterners who know the facts about immigration. Those who correctly perceive that illegal immigration has declined over the past few years and that most immigrants living in the Midwest today are here legally, are more supportive of change. Midwesterners who are aware that illegal immigration has decreased over the past few years are much more likely (65 percent) than the Midwest average (45 percent) to express willingness to allow unauthorized workers to stay in the United States, either with a pathway to citizenship or with job permits. Those who are aware of Midwestern businesses’ difficulties in finding enough U.S. citizens to fill open jobs at the high and low end also are more supportive. Those who sense there is a shortage of U.S. citizens — for both high- and low-skill jobs — support proposals to increase the number of visas granted to foreign workers: 59 percent for high-skill, 64 percent for low-skill workers.

This suggests that any deal hammered out in the backrooms of Washington offices will have a hard time generating support unless our lawmakers also turn toward developing and orchestrating a well-defined and well-targeted public education effort that lays out current trends in immigration, the needs of local businesses and the economic costs and benefits of immigration.

The good news is we know that the more people are aware of the facts of immigration, the more supportive they are of reform. The reality is that in the crucial swing states of the Midwest, there is still a lot of fear and concern about immigration. Pursuing a dual strategy of building a public education campaign along with trying to reach a compromise might actually make a deal possible. It also might create the public pressure necessary to bring both parties together to reach a sustainable solution.

Rachel Bronson is vice president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow.