On Saturday, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in more than 70 cities across the country to call on Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. But let's be clear on what triggered these marches. They weren't as much a call for immigration reform as they were an angry cry against Arizona's new immigration law. The distinction is important. In the absence of the controversial new measure, the rallies—which had been planned long before the Arizona bill became law—would have drawn far fewer participants. Why? Because what really galvanizes Hispanics in big numbers (and it's mostly Hispanics we're talking about) isn't a desire to legalize the undocumented, but a feeling that the undocumented are being demonized.
Polling over the years (like this January 2009 Pew Hispanic survey) has consistently shown that immigration reform isn't a top priority for Hispanic voters. They're more concerned about things like jobs and education. But if a government policy or proposal comes around that they think vilifies immigrants, the calculus changes. They might tolerate all variety of strict measures aimed at the undocumented—proposals to deny them driver's licenses or even some public services. But a law that seems racially motivated, that seems not simply anti-immigrant but anti-Latino, is a different story.
What we witnessed over the weekend was a smaller version of the marches in 2006. Back then, hundreds of thousands poured into the streets, similarly calling for an immigration overhaul. But what prompted those massive displays was a despised piece of legislation known as the "Sensenbrenner bill," for its Republican sponsor, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. That measure, which never became law, would have made felons of all illegal immigrants, as well as those who helped them.
The Sensenbrenner bill did wonders for Latino voter registration and mobilization. It helped Democrats win back large numbers of Hispanics in the 2006 midterm elections. And it created a horrible image problem for Republicans. Should we expect something similar this time around? It's still too early to say. But the potential is certainly there. Until the Arizona flare-up, immigration reform was limping along. Advocacy and civil-rights organizations were struggling to get Congress and the administration to focus on it. And Latinos had more pressing concerns. According to a March Resurgent Republic poll, 51 percent of likely Hispanic voters said the economy was the most important problem facing the country, 15 percent cited health care, and only 3 percent mentioned immigration reform. A Latino Decisions poll that same month showed little Hispanic enthusiasm for either Democrats or Republicans and little desire to participate in the midterm elections this year.
Well, that may now change. By passing its immigration law, Arizona may have lit a fire under Latinos. An electorate that has often been beset by low turnout, and that appeared especially unenthusiastic this year, may be stirring into action. And given that Republicans are once again behind this latest indignity to Hispanics, Democrats are the ones who will benefit.