Democrats Divided On Immigration Law Reform

Democrats divided on immigration law reform

Web Posted: 12/17/2006 11:30 PM CST
My San Antonio News
Hernn Rozemberg
Express-News Immigration Writer

Claire McCaskill wants the government to ramp up security by building a new border fence, avoid giving undocumented immigrants a chance for legalization, punish employers that hire them, and resist business-lobby pressures to create a temporary guest worker program for foreigners.

Meet the incoming senator from Missouri, representing the Democratic Party's new face on immigration and border security. She defeated an incumbent Republican not known for his tenderness toward undocumented migrants.

As the new Democratic-led Congress prepares for the next session starting in January, prospects for immigration reform remain unknown. Democratic leaders promise action will be taken, but the matter is not on their top-priority list.

The enforcement-only stance championed by McCaskill and other newcomers could create a rift within party ranks, akin to the chasm the issue pried open among Republicans last year.

Democratic leaders have vowed to introduce legislation to improve ethical conduct in Washington, raise the minimum wage and cut student loan interest rates but immigration isn't on their initial agenda.

The issue is just too thorny for a quick fix, said Drew Hammill, spokesman for Nancy Pelosi, the incoming U.S. House speaker.

“Immigration is absolutely a top priority for her, and she has talked to the president about it,” Hammill said. “But it's complex, and she'll want to go through committees and hearings.”

A leading national immigration analyst said last week that immigration legislation is expected to be introduced in March or April.

But if people think a Democrat-led Congress will be able to easily break the legislative impasse seen under Republican control this year, they need to think again, said Tamar Jacoby, who follows immigration issues for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative New York City think tank.

It remains to be seen how Democrats will maintain public trust by prioritizing security concerns while building an internal consensus that doesn't alienate the Hispanic vote, Jacoby said.

Already used to a lot of talk but little achievement, the public isn't expecting a new tune next year. Many respondents in a Rasmussen poll last week 40 percent didn't expect to see immigration reform enacted.

Though rarely ever nodding in unison, immigrant advocates and restrictionists concurred that the election proved Democrats had to move to the right in order to win.

But advocates remain optimistic that last year's gridlock won't be repeated and chances have improved for reform.

“Most disagreements are on the edges now, such as on working out acceptable numbers of visas and guest workers allowed,” said Michelle Waslin, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza.

Opponents of illegal immigration lamented losing some big-name supporters of their cause in the election but remained hopeful that newly elected Democrats will keep their campaign promises to focus first or solely on enforcement.

“No matter how you cut it, immigration is now part of the national security debate, and Democrats have prided themselves on looking tougher than Bush,” said Caroline Espinosa, spokeswoman for NumbersUSA, a lobbying group in Washington, D.C.

Many Democratic rookies will be closely followed to see how they vote.

Candidates readily weighed in on immigration and border security during the election, whether they actually hailed from border states or as far away as Iowa and Pennsylvania:

“Congress tried an amnesty before, and it did not work. Amnesty sent the wrong message and encouraged further lawlessness,” offered Nick Lampson, the Democrat who will represent indicted former GOP House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's district, near Houston.

“When we capture illegals in Vanderburgh County, my deputies call INS and INS tells them there's no place to put them. That's not right,” protested Brad Ellsworth, a sheriff who won a seat in Indiana.

Such talk has readied returning Democratic congressmen for a prolonged, fiery debate that will likely evoke the need for a helping hand from Republicans to collect enough votes to pass legislation.

Some said internal differences within Democratic ranks already became evident earlier this year, when the Republican-led Congress, particularly the House, passed reform that focused solely on enforcement.

The effort that led to the enactment of a bill calling for the construction of nearly 700 miles of high-tech, double-layered border fencing was led by Republicans, but 64 Democrats voted for it, noted Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo.

“I don't care if we have a Democratic majority,” he said. “There are going to be big differences and, no doubt, it's going to be difficult to pass immigration reform.”

Rep. Charlie Gonzlez, D-San Antonio, said the incoming group of tough-sounding first-termers soon will learn the art of having to break campaign promises to keep their political careers alive.

And though he also acknowledged consensus won't be easily reached, he didn't foresee the issue forming a deep, emotional fissure in his party.

Gonzalez's analysis was seconded by his party leadership.

“Are there going to be different ideas of how to get it done? Probably,” said Luis Miranda, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “We welcome a healthy debate, but not the divisiveness and scapegoating Republicans have brought to the issue.”