Because Democrats won the presidential election, it's easy to ignore the second lesson in favor of the first - but as we head into the 2014 national elections, where Democrats will face a tough challenge if they aim to keep their U.S. Senate majority, both parties would be wise to learn the demographic lessons that the past election cycle has taught us. And both parties have the opportunity to put these lessons into practice as we renew the national policy debate over comprehensive immigration reform.
You remember 2006: moderate Republicans in the Senate, allied with President George W. Bush (who was famously moderate on immigration issues, by Republican standards), came up with a viable proposal. But conservative Republicans in the House, who had introduced the most frightening and draconian national immigration policy initiative of our generation, refused to budge an inch and effectively killed the process.
Six years later, conservative Republicans still control the House - but it is clear that they can't afford to placate or offend their party's nativist base. If they repeat the mistakes they made when they introduced HR 4437, they will severely limit their growth potential not only among Latino voters, but also among other voters of color. 81% of black voters, for example, support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants - an even higher percentage than the 79% of Latino voters who do. 73% of native-born Asian Americans also support a path to citizenship. So, for that matter, do 51% of white Americans - the one demographic the Republican Party tends to carry. On the other hand, if the Republican Party does concede ground and allow a path to citizenship, the Tea Party will become more aggressive - and, no doubt, field primary challengers who will pick away at more moderate Republican incumbents. This is a no-win situation for Republican policymakers.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a no-lose situation for Democrats. If he continues to deport immigrants at the current rate, President Obama will hold the bizarre distinction of having deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president in U.S. history - and, despite his support for deferred action and the DREAM Act, he has offered immigrants and their allies relatively little with respect to concrete policy goals. For both moral and political reasons, the Democratic Party would be well-served to lay out a future immigration policy that unambiguously distinguishes its objectives from those of the GOP. This may be exactly what President Obama plans to do - but in order to present a solid agenda for comprehensive immigration reform, the President must reject his own administration's policy history on mass deportations. I believe that he can, and I believe that he should. I am less certain that he will.
Related: History of Undocumented ("Illegal") Immigration