Paul Singer, Founder, Chief Executive Officer, and Co-Chief Investment Officer, Elliott Management Corporation is investing money into getting immigration reform done. (Photographer: Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg)

Opinion: Deep pockets may not translate to success with immigration reform

Immigration has become dominated by the money game. As the cottage industry of anti-immigrant organizations focus on cultural anxiety, fear-mongering about terrorism, and flawed economic arguments about a zero-sum labor market, the pro-immigrant side has focused its approach on self-interested labor groups, small businesses, and mega-millionaires yearning to move the discussion forward for one reason or another.

The pro-immigrant storyline has gained the upper hand in the debate because of a clear cultural shift in what Americans value, i.e. money.  In the past, major moments of immigration reform centered on cultural issues and labor competition, but the focus on today’s discussion over immigration has revolved around the economic viability of the migrants themselves.

Perhaps this is a better discussion to have than the alternatives we’ve had in the past, but one wonders if the money lining up behind reform will be enough to overcome the strong sentiments levied against immigrants.

Old habits die hard. Ancient prejudices and backwards thinking is still prevalent in the anti-immigrant discussion.  The Boston bombing has been the gift that keeps on giving for those who want to slow down immigration reform, and the focus on Muslims, terrorists, and barbarians at our gates is the right-wing fairytale equivalent of lions, tigers and bears.

Despite the hold these arguments still have, there has been a clear shift in how we measure the value of immigrants, and heavyweights across the economic spectrum are lending their resources to promote reform.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has put together a group of like-minded millionaires to lobby Republicans to support immigration reform and Mayor Bloomberg has also been at the forefront of moving forward on reform.

On the right, Republican bundler Paul Singer and Ruport Murdoch of Fox News have gotten behind immigration reform, and this influx of interest by the rich folks is overwhelming the anti-immigrant crowd by garnering political support across the spectrum, from conservative stalwarts like Haley Barbour of Mississippi to libertarian favorites like Paul Ryan.

The greatest hope that the anti-immigrant crowd has is the incapacity of Congress to get anything done and the legislative advantage small groups have to thwart progress.  If you were following the Manchin-Toomey gun legislation, you’ll know that popular support for a bill does not guarantee its passage.

Despite the advantage that the pro-immigrant crowd has, it’s clear that greater momentum will be needed to push reform through.  The shift in the argument over who gets to come here based on economic necessity has been timely given our recent recession, and anxiety over global competition and a lack of jobs has allowed pro-reformers to promote high-skilled immigrants who would help create jobs and low-skilled immigrants who will do the jobs Americans won’t do.

But the window to get something of substance done may close if the economy shifts and events abroad stoke cultural anxieties that have in the past overwhelmed logic and reason.  For now, the big money is on reform and it will take some creative thinking on the part of the anti-immigrant crowd to stoke the flames of cultural incompatibility.

For instance, the Gun Owners of America has taken a particularly novel approach to raising the anxiety level of red-blooded Americans by claiming that immigration reform will spell the end of gun rights.  Major brownie points for the effort goes out to the GOA, but history has shown that this low-level of thinking has borne fruit in the past.

If the deep pockets want to achieve their goal of reforming our immigration system, they’ll need to dig deeper and perhaps pray a little more at the altar of the almighty dollar.


Stephen A. Nuño, Ph.D., NBC Latino contributor and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. He is currently writing a book on Republican outreach into the Latino Community.

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