San Diego Union Tribune

December 9, 2006

Immigrant legislation strategy is plotted

Kennedy, McCain, 2 congressmen meet


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 wage.

“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 illegal immigration.

The November midterm elections seemed to send mixed messages.

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 immigration.

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 willing employer.”

“That's up to the president,” Pelosi said. “We want to work closely with him because it has to be comprehensive and bipartisan.”

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.

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