WASHINGTON – Two of
the most liberal members of Congress met with two of their
most conservative colleagues this week to revive
immigration legislation that passed the Senate but was
throttled by House Republican leaders who resisted its
attempt to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants.
Sen. Edward Kennedy
“The plan is to bring the bill up in late winter,” said
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a conservative stalwart who
attended the meeting in the office of Sen. Edward Kennedy,
D-Mass. The other participants were Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.,
and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.
The strategy session Wednesday came amid speculation
about how the dynamics of the immigration debate might
change, if at all, when Democrats take control of the
House and Senate next month.
Flake said that Kennedy, who will be chairman of the
Senate Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee,
wants to let the new Congress deal first with issues such
as the war in Iraq and proposals to raise the minimum
“Then he'll be ready to go” with a new version of the
bill that the Senate approved in April.
Sen. John McCain
Republicans ran the show in both houses of Congress
then, and passionate divisions in their ranks over
immigration policy became a dominant feature of the
debate. Democrats, particularly in the House, were mostly
content to sit back and enjoy the stalemate, even as they
campaigned against the “do-nothing Republican Congress.”
Now Democrats face the hazards of immigration politics.
Immigration-law changes are conspicuously absent from
the legislative agenda laid out by incoming House Speaker
Nancy Pelosi. Observers here say it will be difficult for
Pelosi, D-San Francisco, to honor her campaign-season
pledge to work for a new comprehensive immigration law
without splitting a caucus that includes freshly elected
Democrats who vowed to secure the border and crack down on
The November midterm elections seemed to send mixed
Rep. Luis Gutierrez
In a cliffhanger contest, Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a
conservative Republican and strident foe of illegal
immigration, was defeated by Democrat Harry Mitchell.
Immigration advocates such as Ben Johnson of the
Immigration Policy Center say Hayworth's defeat showed
that immigration “did not turn out to be the firebrand
issue that some people thought it could be.”
But immigration restrictionists point out that Mitchell
made getting tough on immigration the centerpiece of his
campaign. They also say Mitchell cleverly used the issue
against Hayworth, saying his Republican opponent was part
of a political regime that wasn't competent enough to stop
the hundreds of thousands of immigrants that sweep across
Arizona's southern border each year.
While Mitchell said he favored legal status for
long-established immigrants, he insisted that immigration
policy can be fixed only by “members of Congress who are
willing to enforce the law, produce real immigration
reform and stop playing politics with the issue.”
Rep. Jeff Flake
That enforcement-heavy approach is fine with
immigration advocates as long as it is part of a package
that provides permanent legal status to those who are
beckoned across the border by agriculture, restaurant,
construction, landscaping and janitorial jobs. The number
of illegal immigrants in the United States is estimated to
be at least 11 million.
Immigrant-rights advocates, along with their allies at
the National Chamber of Commerce and other business
organizations, also support a proposal to provide hundreds
of thousands of low-wage workers every year for employers
who demonstrate that they are unable to find Americans to
fill the slots.
While McCain and Kennedy describe this as a
“temporary-worker program,” the legislation they sponsored
would put the workers on a path to citizenship.
At a time of anxiety about the loss of good-paying
manufacturing jobs, the McCain-Kennedy bill's efforts to
import low-wage labor has drawn the anger of critics
across the political spectrum. That is why Mark Krikorian
of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates
immigration restrictions, predicts Pelosi will be
reluctant to get behind a proposal that could endanger the
new Democratic majority.
“Nancy Pelosi knows the Democrats are on probation for
the next two years,” Krikorian said.
He predicted that Pelosi would back less ambitious
immigration change, such as a plan to provide legal status
to undocumented students, rather than take on the
explosive issue of mass legalization, which critics
condemn as an amnesty that would spawn more illegal
But Frank Sharry, executive director of the National
Immigration Forum, which advocates for immigrant rights,
argues that next year will be pivotal because of the
presidential race that follows.
“I think that once we
hit primary (election) season, controversial issues get a
lot harder to do,” Sharry said. “Everybody I talk to says
2007 is the window of opportunity.”
Pelosi was noncommittal this week on whether the House
would take up immigration legislation. She sought to
deflect some of the responsibility to the White House,
suggesting that she expects President Bush to offer more
specifics than his call to “match willing worker with
“That's up to the president,” Pelosi said. “We want to
work closely with him because it has to be comprehensive
President Bush's political advisers, meanwhile, have
acknowledged that revamping immigration law may be
necessary to shore up sagging support for Republicans
among Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing ethnic
group. Republicans received just 30 percent of the
Hispanic vote this year, down from 44 percent in 2004.