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Not surprisingly, development issues played no role in the recent US presidential election.  Perhaps surprisingly, immigration reform is now a major second term agenda.  CGD has been promoting migration as not just a domestic but also a development issue for some time, with my Let Their People Come, the Place Premium, new empirical research that shows the massive gains to unskilled labor mobility, the inclusion of migration policy in the Commitment to Development Index and policy work on migration and Haiti.  As immigration comes roaring back onto the active US political agenda the discussion should be informed by the developmental consequences (for good or ill) of US decisions about policies towards labor mobility.

In an interview with the Des Moines Register before the election Obama listed his second term priorities:  “We need to get immigration reform done, and I’m fully committed to doing that.”  More importantly, when asked what he would get done, given the need to cooperate with Republicans who would still control the House, he said:

The second thing I’m confident we’ll get done next year is immigration reform. And since this is off the record, I will just be very blunt. Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community. And this is a relatively new phenomenon. George Bush and Karl Rove were smart enough to understand the changing nature of America. And so I am fairly confident that they’re going to have a deep interest in getting that done. And I want to get it done because it’s the right thing to do and I've cared about this ever since I ran back in 2008.

The exit polls are clear that arithmetically Obama prediction was exactly right.  He owes his victory—and Romney his loss--to overwhelming support from Latino voters.  In the national vote totals Romney was 2 percentage points ahead among Non-Latinos.  However, Romney lost Latinos, who were 10 percent of the voters, by a 44 percentage point gap (71-27) and hence (in this CNN exit poll) lost overall by 2.6 percentage points.

Race Group as percent of voters Shares of vote, by race Total votes (vote share of racial group times share of voters)
Obama Romney Difference Obama Romney Margin of total votes from group
























Total, Non-Latino




Latino votes, actual and hypothetical

Total difference









Hypothetical: Romney gets Bush 2004 Latino vote share





Source:  CNN exit poll,

I suspect his prediction about there being a possibility for bipartisan cooperation for immigration reform is also correct, for two reasons.

First, Republicans will now be clearer eyed about demographic destiny.  Romney just won the white vote by a 20 percentage point margin.  This same spread among whites for Bush over Dukakis in 1988 produced a huge win.  In 2012 Romney lost.  African American and Latino vote shares will only grow over time.  While Latinos have leaned Democrat, they are clearly a swing demographic. Bush in 2004 lost Latinos by only 18 and won.  Had Romney lost Latinos by only that margin he would have won the popular vote (in the exit poll data).  Getting on the wrong side of a growing demographic, which Republican obstructionism on immigration reform might do, is not good long-run electoral politics.

Second, while elements of the Republican Party are anti-immigration some core Republican constituencies are strongly in favor of greater labor mobility.  Farmers in the West and South of the United States rely heavily on immigrant labor and are strongly in favor of programs that allow them more reliable access to workers.  More broadly, business interests in the USA recognize the contribution of migrants to a dynamic economy at every level, from attracting entrepreneurial migrants, to high skilled workers, to workers in service and construction industries.

It is not at all hard to envision bipartisan cooperation around comprehensive immigration reform along the lines that has been on (and off) the agenda for years which (a) combines pathways to legalization and/or citizenship for existing undocumented residents, (b) reform of the allocation of visas for permanent migration towards greater emphasis on contribution to the economy, and (c) greater scope for labor mobility to meet needs for workers in specific industries and occupations.  There is scope for that reform to be a big win for development as well.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.