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Immigration Redux

Both the president and congressional Republicans appear willing to advance an immigration reform bill. President Obama has vowed to pursue reform on multiple occasions in the past, including last year’s—and this year’s—State of the Union Address. House Speaker John Boehner has even said that his body would probably pass some sort of bill.

The funny thing is, immigration is rather low on the list of priorities, at least as voters see it.

According to the National Journal, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that immigration is only a priority to 39% of respondents. This is down by 8% from a 2006 poll asking the same basic question.

A recent Gallup poll found that a mere 3% of respondents found immigration to be their top concern. In the same poll, 38% of respondents cited some sort of economic concern as the top priority while 21% expressed dissatisfaction with government.

In other words, as the National Journal puts it, Americans just aren’t that into immigration right now. So why the seeming bipartisan agreement to do something and to do it soon?

One possibility is that both parties are seeking votes. Somehow supporting comprehensive immigration reform is seen as the way to court Hispanic voters. Since Hispanic voters already support Democrats by wide margins, any agreement that hastens citizenship for illegal immigrants, particularly Hispanics, would disproportionately benefit Democrats.

For Republicans it would be about image. With Democrats viewed as the party friendly to Hispanics, a GOP move to offer some sort of legal status would seem to be a play to increase the party’s appeal to this growing voting segment.

Ultimately, the particulars might undo any deal. The GOP knows amnesty with citizenship and voting rights would be an electoral blow, so they are likely to seek a watered down version: legal status without voting rights. Democrats will balk at this and the deal will die. Democrats, meanwhile, will seek an amnesty—probably by another name—citing compassion and practicality.

Luckily for the GOP, polls regularly show that voters agree with their probable version of reform: border enforcement, legal status, etc. Border security will also be a sticking point. Democrats might agree in principle to securing the southern US border, but will ultimately find ways to ensure that it never happens. If so, we will experience a repeat of the 1986 deal that supposedly exchanged enforcement for a “one-time” amnesty.

A second “one-time” amnesty will likely compound the problem in the future, too, as border security advocates will have plenty of reason to be skeptical.