Could SCOTUS Help POTUS?
We now turn to the latest chapter in the long-running American saga known as “Immigration Nation,” and the Supreme Court ruling on Arizona’s controversial law aimed at stemming the flow of illegal immigrants from south of the border.
The ruling had something for both sides. The champions of the Arizona law claimed victory because the high court unanimously upheld the most contested aspect of the statute—the requirement that police check a person’s immigration status if they have reason to believe that person is in the country illegally.
But the Supremes struck down three other provisions of the law that dealt with employment and police powers, reasserting the primacy of the federal government to decide immigration matters, not the states. This will have ramifications for the five other states that have enacted laws similar to the one in Arizona, and for several others in the process of trying to enact such laws.
Essentially, the high court is telling the states they do have the power to check on the immigration status of people stopped by police for other reasons. But the justices also put limits on the states on how far they can go in trying to stop illegals from trying to find work and in giving police even broader powers of arrest without warrants.
Even in upholding the “show me your papers” aspect of the Arizona law, the high court majority suggested there would be limits on state attempts to detain someone on suspicion of being in the country illegally. Critics of the Arizona law continue to insist that by upholding this part of the statute, police officers will open themselves up to allegations of racial profiling as they go about the business of checking immigration status based on vague concepts such as “reasonable suspicion”.
Overall, I think you can make the case that the Supreme Court ruling on immigration might help President Obama, at least slightly, in this year’s election. The president is absolutely dependent on a strong turnout from Hispanic voters in November. Four years ago Mr. Obama won 67 percent of Hispanic voters in his race against Republican John McCain and a repeat of that performance this year would go a long way toward making up what is expected to be a loss of support among white and independent voters this year.
As Democratic political strategist Mark Penn points out in the latest issue of Time Magazine, Hispanic voting power has been growing for years and that trajectory is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. In 1992, the first time Bill Clinton was elected president, Hispanics made up two percent of the U.S. voting electorate. That figure is expected to rise to more than ten percent this year. The biggest unknown for the Obama campaign and Democrats is whether Hispanic voters will be motivated enough to get out and vote in November, and that’s where the Supreme Court ruling and the president’s recent decision to halt the deportation of some younger illegal immigrants could help.
Hispanic activists have long complained that the president has not done enough to follow through on his campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform, which remains bottled up in Congress. But there was a decided change in tone from leaders of Latino and immigration organizations I spoke to at a recent rally celebrating Mr. Obama’s decision to unilaterally go ahead with a light version of the Dream Act, allowing hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants brought to this country when they were children to stay. That action alone is likely to boost support within the Hispanic community and act as an incentive for Latinos to turn out and vote in November. Add to that the Obama administration’s decision to fight the Arizona law in court, and all of a sudden Hispanic voters might be feeling a little more warmly toward the president than they have been.
Impact on Voter Turnout
The key question remains what if any impact will all this have on Hispanic voter turnout in November? And this applies not only to Hispanic voters but especially to younger and first-time voters who came out in droves for Barack Obama four years ago. That’s why when you hear the experts talk about a “turnout election”, it has to do with the Obama campaign mobilizing their supporters to make up for the expected slippage in swing voter support because of the president’s poor approval ratings on his handling of the economy.
Mr. Obama’s expected opponent in the fall campaign, Republican Mitt Romney, finds himself in a tougher political spot on the immigration issue. You may recall all the harsh rhetoric about illegal immigration at the Republican debates during the primary campaign when the candidates were basically united in support of the Arizona law. Romney in particular seemed intent on not being outflanked on his right on the immigration issue, even going after Texas Governor Rick Perry for granting young illegals in-state tuition rates and financial aid to attend state colleges and universities.
Romney now faces the challenge of saying to Hispanic voters and other immigrant groups, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not that bad!’ But he can only go so far before he’ll be yanked back to the right by Tea Party activists and other conservatives for whom border security and removing illegals from the country remain high priority issues.
Hispanic voters will also get a lot of attention this year because their numbers are rapidly increasing not just nationwide but in a number of closely contested so-called ‘battleground states’ that likely hold the balance of power in the election. While Latinos vote in force in solid Democratic states like California and New York, they are also growing in importance in more competitive states like New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. Democrats believe that the growth of the Hispanic voting population could even make them competitive one day in solid Republican states like Arizona and even Texas, though they acknowledge that day may be years away.
In general, I think the immigration debate helps the president more than Romney. Plus each day spent on issues like immigration is one less day the Romney campaign gets to focus on the weak economy, which they believe is their best path to victory in November.