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Op-Ed

A wedge issue that's losing its point

Attitudes have softened toward illegal immigration, making the issue less of a useful tool for cynical politicians. The same is true of same-sex marriage.

April 02, 2011|Tim Rutten

Wedge issues are the rhetorical enablers of the bitterly partisan politics that have disfigured our national conversation in recent years.

They're the controversial questions on which significant numbers of voters hold views that admit no compromise or nuanced disagreement. Candidates raise them to divide their constituents and to morally discredit their opponents. Abortion is a classic wedge issue, but of declining electoral utility, since roughly equal numbers of voters hold strong views on both sides of the matter. Gun control used to be a reliable wedge, but now that the majority of Democrats have thrown in the towel, there's little profit in raising it. Even same-sex marriage no longer excites the passions it once did.

Immigration, on the other hand, is the grandfather of all wedge issues — with a history of arousing electoral passions that extends in one iteration to the 1920s and, earlier, to the Nativists. That's why, as The Times' Brian Bennett reported this week, more than 10 House Republicans are sponsoring the Secure Border Act of 2011, a draconian piece of legislative fantasy that directs the Department of Homeland Security to submit to Congress a five-year plan to eliminate all undocumented immigration and smuggling. This legislation follows a request by all seven GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that Homeland Security calculate for them the cost of deporting all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Neither of these things is going to happen, not simply because they'll neither pass the Senate nor be signed by this president, but also because they're impossible to accomplish.

As Bennett pointed out, this bill's backers seem more interested in creating a 2012 election issue than they do in making law. The interesting thing about that sentiment is that it's hardly universal among Republicans. Many, of course, are mindful of the California GOP's fate since 1994, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson linked his party's future to the anti-immigrant Proposition 187. The consequent alienation of increasingly significant Latino voters has been a major factor in the Republicans' marginalization in the state. In the years since, moreover, most GOP political strategists have come to believe that, to succeed, their presidential candidates need to carry about 40% of the national Latino vote — a segment of the electorate that is increasing most rapidly in states that gained electoral votes in the last census.

There's also a growing sense in some heavily Republican states that immigrants — whatever their legal status — are a pillar of the U.S. economy. Heavy lobbying by the business community, for example, persuaded the Arizona Legislature recently to reject a number of new anti-immigrant measures. Utah, perhaps the reddest of red states, last month enacted a law that provides state work permits to undocumented immigrants without criminal records.

Most significant, there's increasing evidence that a growing number of Americans favor comprehensive immigration reform that involves increased enforcement, some sort of regulated flow of workers across the border, and a path to citizenship for immigrants already here without papers. A Times/USC poll conducted shortly before the midterm election found that 59% of likely California voters felt that undocumented immigrant workers should be given a way to regularize their legal status; 48% said the state benefits from immigrants' presence.

The survey found that nearly 60% of respondents younger than 45 felt immigrants are a benefit to California and 68% feel they should be able to keep their jobs. In other words, opinion on immigration may be shifting in much the same way that it has on same-sex marriage: Younger Americans no longer accept the orthodoxies that once made both questions such divisive wedge issues.

Last month, for example, a Washington Post/ABC poll found that 53% of Americans now believe that same-sex marriage should be legalized. Like many such surveys, a recent nonpartisan Pew Research Center poll found that approval is strongest among younger voters. Similarly, a study in September by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 51% of Americans under 30 believe that "immigrants work hard" and "are not a burden," while 65% think they "strengthen society" and "don't threaten American values."

In other words, two once-powerful political wedges appear to be crumbling because Americans, who for most of their lives have lived and worked alongside openly gay and lesbian people and immigrants, have drawn conclusions from experience rather than fanciful rhetoric.

There's something hopeful in that.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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