In the 1920s, popular opposition to immigration had produced the only severely restrictive laws in our history, blocking most Europeans. Mexicans maintained free entry, an early testament to the power of Southwestern business interests.Yep, the big suits of the Republican Party have screwed themselves for the long term, something more cognizant observers have warned against for years.
As the Depression spread, local governments, facing rising welfare costs and taxpayer anger, urged Mexicans seeking welfare to go home. The result was a massive repatriation, largely because immigrants usually return to their home countries in hard times.
The coalition that elected Roosevelt, like Obama's, included ethnic groups disparaged in anti-immigrant campaigns. In the Obama coalition, Latinos will expect a reward. They will demand comprehensive immigration reform, by which they mean regularization of the status of millions of undocumented workers.
Their intent, like that of all ethnic lobbies in our history, will be to facilitate access of their group to the U.S. In the short run, meeting this demand will be costly for Democrats. As unemployment spreads, a proposal to grant legal status and social services to illegal immigrants could be politically disastrous.
Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, is said to be opposed to any immigration proposals in the first term. He favors FDR's strategy: Don't open the Pandora's Box of immigration when citizens are unemployed. The Roosevelt coalition never modified the restrictionist laws of the 1920s.
In the long run, however, regularization is a big opportunity for Democrats, who since the 1840s have built their success on immigrant-origin voting blocs. Regularization means access to citizenship for the undocumented and sets in motion legal immigration by their relatives.
Most important, amnesties, like guest-worker programs, prompt more illegal immigration. The result will be steady increases in the Mexican and Latino population and, Democratic leaders might well hope, generations of Democratic voters. Democrats weigh the short-term electoral costs of pro-immigrant policy during a recession against the long-term benefits of making their party dominant in the 21st century.
And the Republican calculus? Karl Rove thinks salvation lies in reaching out to Latinos. Given their low socioeconomic status, and the alienating effects of grass-roots Republican anti-immigrant rhetoric, it is unlikely that even deep concessions will make Latinos into Republicans. [Politics of immigration, from FDR to Obama, The Arizona Republic,January 20, 2009]