While illegal immigration is an issue that has always generated more heat than light in Mississippi, the issue has been a clear winner for Republicans.
Even before the GOP began to evolve along the current intra-party fault lines of mainstream Chamber of Commerce types and the hardline Tea Party conservatives, Mississippi Republicans were always safe talking about the need to tighten border security and the abiding threat of immigrants “stealing” jobs from willing citizen workers.
Even former Gov. Haley Barbour – whose views on immigration were downright moderate after Hurricane Katrina and throughout his second term – paid lip service to get-tough immigration policies in his initial 2003 gubernatorial bid.
But this year, Barbour has been at the core of a growing Republican shift to the center on immigration. Barbour is helping lead a bipartisan group including former governors and cabinet secretaries who have recommended that immigration reform include a path to citizenship that begins with granting immediate provisional status before concomitant enforcement and border security improvements are made.
“I believe if there is a rigorous path to citizenship that does have rigorous requirements, I’m comfortable with it,” Barbour told reporters.
There are reasons that Republicans are making that centrist shift and altruism really isn’t part of the equation. Smart political strategists are watching the nation’s demographics and working the nation’s future electoral mathematics.
A recent bit of data from the Census Bureau makes the case for that new math. One in five married households now has at least one spouse who was born outside the U.S., according to the bureau. Three states and the District of Columbia have 12 percent or more households where one spouse is American-born and the other is not.
The Census Bureau found 21 percent of married households in the U.S. in 2011 had at least one foreign-born spouse. For national politics, the handwriting is on the wall that hardline immigration policies will increasingly alienate growing numbers of swing voters who can decide control of the White House and strongly impact congressional districts drawn to include significant immigrant populations.
Census data indicated that Hawaii had the highest percentage of such households, at 16 percent. Mississippi, South Dakota and West Virginia had the lowest percentages, each at 2 percent. Estimates of Mississippi’s immigrant population vary, but the Pew Hispanic Center estimated Mississippi’s illegal immigrant population at 45,000 people, or about 1.6 percent of the state’s total population.
So while Mississippi will likely continue to be fertile ground for tough illegal immigration rhetoric, that rhetoric won’t have much impact on state politics outside GOP primaries.
But in national politics, the large immigrant populations in states like California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New York, Arizona and New Jersey will be able to strongly influence elections.
Tough immigration talk in Mississippi may well continue to be a winner in state politics, but Republicans will find the lack of immigration reform that contains a path to citizenship a tough sell in the next presidential election – and the Census numbers suggestion that degree of difficulty will be one that grows.
SID SALTER is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601)-507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.