ILW.COM - the immigration portal Immigration Daily

< Back to current issue of Immigration Daily < Back to current issue of Immigrant's Weekly

The Surprise Winner In This Year's Election Is ... Comprehensive Immigration Reform

by Frank Sharry

WASHINGTON, D.C.--What a difference an election makes. After all the pre-election prognostication and campaign mudslinging, the pundits and operatives are forced to step back, quiet down, and listen closely to the voters. Spin yields to facts as election results, exit polling, and seat counts offer up statistical evidence of voters’ views and demands.

With respect to immigration, this has been an extraordinary election cycle. Never before in our lifetimes has immigration emerged as a major factor in an election. In the past, immigration has affected a few primaries and maybe a handful of races, at most. But in this election, immigration roiled hundreds of campaigns across the country and at all levels. Why? In part, it is because fixing our nation’s broken immigration system has emerged as a top tier policy priority for the American people. And in part, it is because the current Congress stalemated over broad reform, and, in effect, kicked the issue to the voters.

So, what did the voters say about immigration in these mid-terms?

First and foremost, they defied the pre-election conventional wisdom that had immigration emerging as the wedge issue that would help the Republicans either limit their losses or even retain control of the House of Representatives. Candidates that backed broad and practical reforms performed much better than candidates who espoused a hard enforcement-only or enforcement-first position.

Secondly, through pre-election and exit polls, voters soundly rejected the siren song of enforcement-only pabulum in favor of a pragmatic comprehensive approach to immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for those working and living in the U.S. illegally.

Finally, Latino voters made it clear that immigration is a defining issue for the fastest growing group of new voters in the nation, and that those who adopt a hard line will be met with a hard response.

What does this mean for immigration reform in the next Congress? It means we have an opportunity to move beyond the stalemate towards a workable solution. But enacting a major reform on such a controversial subject is easier to thwart than to win and thus calls for a new approach to governing.

First, it will require our nation’s leaders to follow through on their stated commitment to bipartisan problem solving. Simply put, when it comes to immigration, no bipartisanship, no solution.

Second, it will require a commitment to not only approving a bill, but approving a bill that can actually work once implemented. Simply put, if it’s not going to work on the ground, it shouldn’t be approved in the Congress.

If our leaders incorporate these lessons going forward, we have a chance to make history. If our leaders revert to partisan bickering and finger pointing, then those responsible for inaction may well face a frustrated electorate once again in 2008.


Throughout most of the past year, many commentators argued that immigration would prove to be “the gay marriage issue of ’06.” The argument went something like this: “House Republicans are smart to block comprehensive immigration reform and fight for a fence because in the upcoming elections it will bring out the base, draw conservative Democratic votes, and at least on this one issue, give them some distance from an unpopular President on a controversial issue.” Brian Bilbray made just such a claim when he won the special election in California-50 to replace the jailed Randy Cunningham. This view emerged as the conventional wisdom, at least for many, leading into the mid-terms.

Many candidates followed this logic, either out of opportunism or conviction. How did they fare?

The Senate

Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) hit opponent Bob Casey early and late for Casey’s support for the Senate comprehensive bill passed on a bipartisan basis last May. Santorum suffered the biggest defeat of any Senate incumbent in this election cycle, losing by 18%.

Katherine Harris repeatedly invoked Senator Bill Nelson’s (D-FL) support for the Senate bill in her comeback attempt. She lost 60% - 38%.

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was attacked by his opponent, Tom Kean, Jr. (R) for the Senator’s support of comprehensive immigration reform. He won going way, 53% -47%.

Senators Cantwell (D-WA) and Stabenow (D-MI) were attacked for their votes in support of allowing legalized immigrant workers to claim credit for social security taxes paid when they had been undocumented. Both won easily.

Senator Carper (D-DE) was opposed by a one-issue candidate, former INS official and noted immigration restrictionist Jan Ting. Accused of supporting “amnesty,” Carper won 70% - 29%.

The House

In Arizona-8 Republican Randy Graf lost to Democrat Gabrielle Giffords by 54% - 42%. This was a closely watched race for a toss up district along the U.S.-Mexico border in a state in which immigration is the number one issue. Graf made the prophetic statement, "If this issue can't be won in this district [by hard-liners], the argument can be made that it can't be won anywhere in the country."

In Indiana-8, House Immigration Subcommittee Chair John Hostettler (R-IN) was one of the featured Republicans in the summer “field hearings” held by House Republicans to stir up voters on the immigration issue. He lost by a wide margin.

In Arizona-5 hard liner J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ) is the author of the book “Whatever It Takes” about illegal immigration, and refused to vote for HR 4437, the controversial Sensenbrenner bill, because he thought it did not go far enough. Hayworth was upset by comprehensive reform advocate Harry Mitchell 51% - 46%. Two years earlier Hayworth won re-election by 21 points.

In Colorado-7, the race featured hard liner Republican Rick O’Donnell trying to replace another Republican, Bob Beauprez who vacated the seat to run for governor. O’Donnell was featured in a front page New York Times article arguing that immigration was the biggest issue in his district and that his views were much more popular than those of his comprehensive reform advocate opponent, Democrat Ed Perlmutter. Perlmutter won 54% - 42%.


In Arizona incumbent and Democrat Janet Napolitano, an early proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, was attacked repeatedly by her opponent Len Munsil for being soft on illegal immigration. He proposed a half a billion dollar border security initiative as his signature issue. Napolitano won 63% - 35%.

In Colorado Republican Bob Beauprez staked his campaign on attacking his Democratic opponent, Bill Ritter, for being soft on illegal immigration. He lost 56% - 41%.

In numerous states Democratic incumbents and candidates came under fire from their opponents for being soft on illegal immigration and for supporting in-state tuition for undocumented students. In every case – Kansas, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Maryland – the pro-immigrant candidate won and the attacker lost.

In California, Arnold Schwarzenegger took a different tack from many in his party. He moved to the center on immigration: he stopped applauding the Minutemen, he apologized for his support of Proposition 187 in the past, he dragged his feet on approving the deployment of his state’s National Guard for border duty, and loudly criticized the Republican Congress for not moving on comprehensive immigration reform. He was rewarded with a huge victory that included 39% of the state’s large group of Latino voters.

So much for the conventional wisdom that being for comprehensive reform would turn out to be a loser and that being a hard line hawk would be a winner.


Two polls, one on the eve of the election, the other through the media’s exit polling, confirm earlier independent polls that make it clear the public wants a solution and wants that solution to be comprehensive.

In a Tarrance Group poll commissioned by the National Immigration Forum and the Manhattan Institute and released on Election Day, likely voters across the nation and in key districts and states were surveyed on immigration. Here are the key findings:

Immigration is an important public policy issue to voters, but not a key issue driving voting in the mid-terms for the majority of voters.

Voters support a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. More see what happened in 2006 (fence and enforcement resources) as a first step rather than as a solution (48% - 28%); want comprehensive reform next year rather than waiting to see how the fence and enforcement increase works out (50% - 37%); reject the idea that enforcement will drive immigrants out of the country (65%-32%); and agree that Congress should enact comprehensive reform next year (75% - 20%).

Voters prefer a candidate who supports comprehensive reform over a candidate that supports enforcement-only (57% - 37%). Perhaps even more importantly, comprehensive reform supporters have more intensity than the enforcement-only supporters (40% - 27%).

Voters are still ambivalent about a vaguely defined path to citizenship for those in the country illegally, with half viewing it as “amnesty” (48% - 46%), but do not believe that a path to citizenship that involves paying a fine, working, paying taxes, living crime free, and learning English constitutes amnesty (68% - 27%).

In exit polls conducted on behalf of the media on November 7, researchers came up with similar findings: According to press reports on the exit polls:

Fewer than one in three cited immigration as extremely important in influencing their vote decision.

For those who said immigration was extremely important, Republicans had only a narrow lead with these voters.

Roughly 6 of 10 voters said they believe that undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S. should be offered a chance to apply for legal status.

Democrats won support from 61% of those who support such a path to citizenship.


Latino voters were not supposed to be much of a factor in this election. But look again. In an election eve poll commissioned by NCLR and conducted by the Lake Group, here is what they found:

Latinos are energized about voting in this election.

The issues on the top of the Latino agenda continue to be education and jobs/the economy, with the war in Iraq coming in third and immigration fourth.

However, immigration is a great motivator in this election. The poll found the issue will have a profound influence on how this electorate votes.

The treatment of the immigration issue and developments over the last year, is driving Latinos away from the Republican Party.

According to 2004 exit polls, President Bush won 44% of the Latino vote. Based on exit polls yesterday, House Republicans won 27% of the Latino vote. In addition, exit polls showed that 37% of Latino voters ranked illegal immigration as an extremely important issue, far more than was the case for all voters. Also, 78% of Latino voters said that those here illegally should be given a chance to apply for legal status, some 20 point higher than other voters.


The public has spoken. The results are in. The demand is clear. Fix our broken immigration system with a tough, fair, and practical solution. We look forward to working with our nation’s policy makers to respond with a workable solution that passes the next Congress and works once implemented.

About The Author

Frank Sharry is the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum in Washington, DC.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.