Former INS Chief Talks Politics of Immigration Reform

BY Kwame Holman  April 4, 2013 at 7:03 PM EDT

The fence that stands on the United States-Mexico border in Naco, Ariz. Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/ The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Doris Meissner sometimes gets accused of taking a pro-Democratic view in her current work as senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, which calls itself an “independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit” analyzer of migration issues worldwide.

But Meissner, a former official in the Clinton administration, ends up talking a lot about politics when the subject is potentially landmark immigration reform legislation now gathering steam in Congress — a plan she said offers more benefits than deficits for the United States.

“This is now an issue of politics. The issues have been out there for a long time. This is an issue of coming to a political meeting of the minds,” Meissner told the NewsHour this week in her office eight blocks from the White House.

The importance of politics in the effort to make fundamental changes to the nation’s immigration policy comes as no surprise to Meissner, whose job it is to understand millions of Latino legal residents and the 11 million undocumented people living in the United States who could gain a path to citizenship under the proposal.

Meissner agrees with the prevailing analysis that Latino voters swung heavily toward President Barack Obama and other Democrats in November in large part because of a perceived anti-immigrant bent of former Gov. Mitt Romney and the Republican Party.

“Those of us working in this field have known for a long time the potential of the Latino vote being a pivotal election-changing vote has always been there,” she said. “But it has been one of those population groups that’s had lower voting rates.”

Polls show that Latino voters were energized by the Democrats’ support for immigration reform and the feeling that Republicans opposed it.

“We’re talking about U.S. citizens. They don’t have a stake in immigration reform in a way that people illegally in the county do, but they do have a stake in immigration reform because they are characterized as bad people in this political fracas, as people who somehow don’t have a right to be here and that has been deeply offensive to Latino voters,” Meissner said.

Meissner — who was commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Immigration and Custom Enforcement) for most of President Bill Clinton’s two terms — said the actions of Latino voters suddenly turned immigration reform from “an issue that had been a complete third rail into the issue that both parties could come together on.”

And Meissner said the swing toward support for immigration reform extends to traditional Republican constituencies, notably in mid-Western and Southern states that have seen substantial increases in Latino immigrant residents in recent years.

“I think what’s going on now in the Christian right and the evangelical world is extraordinarily influential. Because evangelicals and those churches and pastors have taken up this issue of welcoming the stranger and the values in the Bible that believers should be following. They have really embraced this and they are doing very savvy and sophisticated media campaigns in states around the country that are heavily influenced by the evangelical vote, explaining why immigration reform, why citizenship for people who are in the country illegally is consistent with religious belief and the values of those churches,” said Meissner.

Meissner also notes the states immigrants have moved to have seen decreases in their own native populations, leaving many towns to rely on the new immigrants.

“Let’s look just at the pragmatic side of that, which is that the evangelical movement’s fastest-growing group are immigrants and Latino immigrants. So they’re finding this in their own churches, they’re finding in their own congregations people who do not have legal status. And they’re confronting the hardships that that creates in their church community. That’s powerful,” she said.

But even if the political stars seem to continue to align for immigration reform, Meissner can imagine at least two scenarios that could impede the legislation – governors may balk at the costs of applying legal status to millions of undocumented people, or the sheer size of the undertaking.

“It’s the quintessential devil in the details. The sweep of this kind of a bill is enormous. If a bill like this passes, this is going to be a project for our country for the rest of our lifetimes and beyond. This is [a] very substantial set of changes,” she said. “So any of the particular features of it could — because it then involves so many constituencies, so many political interests — could bring it to unravel.”