Other than that minor decision on health care due out in the next few hours, the most important ruling made this week by the U.S. Supreme Court is the one that will allow Democrats to resume a competitive — if not dominant — role in Georgia politics. Not today, not tomorrow, but within the lifetimes of most of this state’s current residents.
What? You missed that one?
Without being too cute about it, a Democratic resurgence in Georgia may be the ultimate impact of the court’s ruling on how far states — in this case Arizona — can go in the fight against illegal immigration.
This is about numbers, not philosophy. Last week, Alan Abramowitz, the Emory University political scientist, pointed out some interesting statistics on the secretary of state’s website.
In 2001, as the lowering of a segregation-era state flag was about to spark a Republican revolution, whites made up a domineering 72 percent of 4.6 million registered Georgia voters. African-Americans accounted for 26 percent. Hispanics, Asians and “others” were at a mere 2 percent.
By May 2008, with black enthusiasm over Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama yet to peak, white voters shrank to 65 percent of the electorate. This past May, even with Republican-backed voter ID laws firmly in place, the trend continued.
White voters now make up just a hair over 60 percent of registered Georgia voters. African-Americans are up to 29 percent. And “other” has increased fourfold to 10 percent.
Demography, like a glacier, is slow but relentless. Unless Republicans can make more inroads among minorities, their time as rulers of the state Capitol is finite.
“There’s not a magic number,” Abramowitz said. “But I’d say that within the next decade, I’d expect that Democrats will be in a much stronger position in statewide elections.”
Statewide, Hispanics made up 9 percent of Georgia’s population in the 2010 census, but only a small fraction vote — not surprising, since many of them dare not register. But that will change.
Which brings us back to Tuesday’s 5-3 ruling on Arizona’s illegal immigration law.
Yes, Gov. Nathan Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens praised the court’s acknowledgement that states have a legitimate, though clearly junior, role in immigration enforcement. Five justices agreed that law enforcement officials indeed can be given the power to ascertain the citizenship of individuals stopped for other reasons.
But the philosophy behind Arizona’s law, and that of Georgia’s HB 87, is the creation of a climate so hostile to illegal immigrants that they will leave of their own accord. “Self-deportation” was embraced by Mitt Romney in the Republican primary as he strove to run to the right of both former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
That’s where the Supreme Court drew its line. Justices struck down portions of the Arizona statute that made it a violation of state law for an undocumented worker to apply for a job or walk around without identity papers.
Court challenges to HB 87 will now begin in earnest. Georgia’s law contains its own efforts to deprive illegal immigrants of a social support system. For instance, knowingly transporting or harboring an illegal immigrant — driving one to work or renting one an apartment — in many cases would be a crime.
But criminalizing such association will be hard to reconcile with this line from Tuesday’s decision: “Removal is a civil, not criminal, matter. A principal feature of the removal system is the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials.” Whether the illegal immigrant has children born here, has strong ties to the community or a distinguished U.S. military record all can be taken into account, the court acknowledged.
Aside from undercutting self-deportation, that language appears to endorse the latitude that President Obama used when he declared earlier this month that illegal immigrants brought here as children would be granted deportation waivers.
Otherwise, the justices pointed to Congress for larger solutions. “Congress has specified which aliens may be removed from the United States and the procedures for doing so,” the court said. So the fate of millions of people who live illegally and paperless in the U.S. lies mostly in the hands of 535 federal lawmakers in Washington, not individual states.
Republicans in Washington will require time to sort themselves out on the issue — if not this year, then the next one or the next one. That means Georgia’s demographic glacier will continue apace as people live, fall in love and have babies.
That delay should give Democrats hope and Republicans heartburn.
By Jim Galloway, Political Insider