Immigration Bill a "Bonanza" for Democrats? Not Quite

Here's why immigration reform won't create a new wave of Hispanic Democrats.

April 23, 2013— -- This morning, Politico published a piece titled "Immigration reform could be bonanza for Democrats" that argues if the bill becomes law "as many as 11 million new Hispanic voters" could transform the electoral map.

I'm not buying it.

I covered this ground in a piece last week that sized up the so-called "Undocumented Vote," but it bears mentioning again: believing that immigration reform would be an automatic electoral boon for Democrats is jumping to a rather big conclusion.

If reform passes, it's possible that several million new Democratic, Hispanic voters will enter the electorate. But the 11 million figure is a vast overstatement. First, it's highly unlikely that all 11 million will go through the entire 13-year process to become full citizens. Many could simply opt for permanent legal status, which does not grant you the right to vote.

There aren't many solid estimates on what portion of the undocumented will become citizens under this law. Around nine in ten undocumented immigrants say they would apply for citizenship under a comprehensive immigration reform law, according to a recent survey conducted by opinion research firm Latino Decisions. But under the 1986 amnesty law, only about 40 percent of the 2.7 million eligible immigrants eventually earned their citizenship.

Here's a more recent example. Up to 950,000 young undocumented immigrants were immediately eligible for a deportation reprieve under President Obama's deferred action program, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. But only 472,000 have applied and 268,000 applications have been approved, per government data.

And it's not clear how many of those who do earn citizenship will vote. Remember that only 58 percent of the entire voting-eligible population cast a ballot for president last year.

Second, not all undocumented immigrants are Hispanic, contrary to Politico's assumption. The vast majority are, but a sizable amount (11 percent) are from Asia and others hail from Africa and Europe, according to Pew.

And third, as Politico itself puts it, it's an "inherently speculative exercise" to assume that all these newly legalized voters will vote Democrat. The vast majority of first-generation immigrants from Mexico do share common political beliefs with the Democratic Party. But it's not clear if the same trends will hold true years from now, when undocumented immigrants could become eligible to vote.

There isn't much hard data on the political preferences of undocumented immigrants. But according to Pew, there is a weaker attachment to the Democratic Party among Latino non-citizen, non-green card holders (the closest estimate for the undocumented that Pew uses) than there are among voters. Fifty-four percent of that group said they identify with the Democratic Party, according to an October 2012 Pew survey, while 19 percent identified with the Republican Party. But a large swath (28 percent) said they either don't have a preference or don't know.

That's a large chunk of voters for Democrats and Republicans to compete over in 2028.

Harry Enten of the Guardian went much more in-depth on this topic today, but essentially arrived at the same result:

The truth of the matter is that passing immigration reform won't be a votes "bonanza" for the Democratic party because of potentially or newly enfranchised undocumented immigrants. That doesn't mean passing immigration reform will help the Republican party among Latinos; the GOP should probably still be worrying about its Latino voter appeal. But it's not facing a landslide from a new citizen electorate.

Both parties would be better off focusing on the 50,000 U.S.-born Latinos who turn 18 each month than the impact of potential voters who won't be able to cast ballots for over a decade.