Are We More Likely to Get an Immigration Reform Bill if Obama Wins the Election?

In my post comparing Romney and Obama on libertarian grounds, I noted that libertarians might have good reason to support Obama if it is likely that a second term for him would result in substantial immigration reform, by which I mean letting more immigrants in the country and/or letting more of the ones already here stay. For reasons I explained here, immigration reform is an extremely important libertarian issue. Unfortunately, I saw no reason to believe that Obama would give this issue any more priority than he did in his first term, where he accomplished very little when he had a massive Democratic majority in Congress in 2009-10, and actually ramped up deportations beyond anything seen under George W. Bush.

Since I wrote my previous post, however, the White House has allowed the publication of an off-the-record interview where the president predicts that he will get an immigration reform bill passed if he wins a second term:

In the interview, Obama said he is confident his administration will pass immigration reform and achieve the equivalent of a grand bargain with Congress.

After failing to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in his first term, the president said Republicans, given the large Latino vote, will be invested in changing the system.

“I’m confident we’ll get done next year is immigration reform,” Obama said in the transcript of the interview posted online by the paper. “And since this is off the record, I will just be very blunt. Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community.”

“So I am fairly confident that they’re going to have a deep interest in getting that done,” he added.

This raises two important questions: Does Obama mean what he says, and is his political analysis correct? On the first point, it’s difficult to say. It’s not clear why Obama would not sacrifice immigration reform to other priorities in his second term, just as he did in his first. During the first term, after all, Obama needed to mobilize Latino voters to support his reelection. Yet he still didn’t prioritize immigration reform and still increased deportations. In a second term, that reelection incentive will be gone, though perhaps Obama will be motivated by a desire to help future Democratic candidates. On balance, I’m not sure whether I should believe Obama on this point or not.

Let’s assume, however, that the president means what he says, and that he really will make the issue a priority. Is he right that the GOP will cooperate with him out of a desire to attract Latino voters? Any immigration reform bill would have to get through a Republican-controlled House and a closely divided Senate. Obama can’t pass an immigration reform bill without substantial Republican support. Some prominent Republicans have indeed been saying that the party needs to change its stance on immigration in order to improve its electoral prospects. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they would pass an immigration reform bill at a time when a Democratic president and Senate could claim the lion’s share of the credit for it. That could help the Democrats with Latinos much more than the GOP.

And if the GOP really does believe they need to shift on immigration in order to increase their appeal to Latinos, why wouldn’t they be equally eager pass an immigration reform bill if Romney wins? Any Romney victory is likely to be a squeaker. Republican strategists will realize that he came very close to losing despite a relatively weak economy, and an incumbent with lots of chinks in his political armor. So Romney would be looking to increase his electoral appeal for 2016, as will a congressional GOP that would at most have very narrow majorities in both houses. A narrow Romney victory won’t necessarily lead the GOP to be any less eager to attract Latino voters than a narrow Obama victory. Obviously, there won’t be any immigration reform bill if Romney wins by a large margin and the GOP gets comfortable majorities in both houses. But that seems extremely unlikely to happen.

Obama assumes that a chastened GOP will be more willing to pass an immigration reform bill if Romney loses. Maybe. But the opposite scenario is at least equally plausible. A narrowly victorious Romney plotting his reelection strategy might be eager to court Latinos. That may be why he has attacked Obama for failing to pass immigration reform when he had the chance, and promised to “get it done” during his own first year. Romney has a long history of politically convenient flip-flops. So I wouldn’t put any great stock in this promise. But if Obama’s evaluation of the GOP’s political situation is correct, Romney might yet deliver on the promise – if not out of principle than out of political calculation.

If Romney tries to push an immigration reform bill through, Democrats might refuse to cooperate with him, just as Republicans might refuse to cooperate with Obama. But such refusal may be tougher for the Democrats to bring off because more of the Democratic base has a strong commitment to liberalizing immigration than the Republican base.

So if Obama is right about the GOP’s need to court Latinos, they may be as much or more likely to pass immigration reform under Romney. If he is wrong, then we may not get immigration reform regardless of who wins. If it’s Obama, a GOP that doesn’t sense any need to attract Latinos would simply refuse to support any Democratic reform bill.

On balance, therefore, a major immigration reform bill is at least equally likely under Romney as under Obama. Both candidates have promised to do it in their first year. It’s hard to tell which is more likely to keep the promise and successfully push a reform bill through Congress.