’08 Dems Push Immigration

08 Dems push immigration

By Sam Youngman
The Hill (DC), September 20, 2007

Leading Democratic presidential candidates are signaling that they will return to the thorny issue of immigration reform faster than their party colleagues on Capitol Hill would like.

The campaigns of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) say their candidates will seek comprehensive reform, a phrase that sometimes implies a guest worker program, as soon as they get to the White House.

Former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), speaking at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) political action conference Monday, said: Were going to ensure that every single person living in the United States of America has a completely achievable path to American citizenship so that they dont live in the shadows.

Every leading Democrat seeking the nomination told the gathering that reform was one of his or her top priorities.

This is in stark contrast to Democratic leaders in Congress, who have been content to stand back and let Republicans fight each other over amnesty versus a guest worker program.

The candidates Monday speeches apparently aimed to woo Hispanic voters. Of all the labor unions Democrats are courting, SEIU has the largest Hispanic membership, and it took on a big role in the past years immigration debates.

But some Hispanic groups and analysts doubt the candidates sincerity, saying they discuss the issue only in front of Hispanic groups. And some Hispanic Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Jos Serrano (N.Y.), have been critical in the past of what they see as their partys reluctance to address the issue.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and other Democrats have been accused of ducking the issue to win Hispanic support by default, as the GOP gets tainted as anti-immigrant. Republican candidates have been jockeying to appear as the toughest on illegal immigration, especially after the political thrashing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) endured after supporting what many saw as amnesty.

After Emanuel reportedly said this summer that he doesnt want Democrats to address the issue until the second term of a Democratic presidency Emanuels office denies this Hispanic leaders say they think Democrats are hoping to win Hispanic votes by default.

Emanuels office said Wednesday that he meant it is difficult to revisit an issue when it has already been so soundly defeated twice, but that he remains committed to resolving the problem.

But Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), told The Hill, the reality is that Democrats have not been that strong on immigration when theyve had the chance.

Wilkes said Democrats display nervousness because immigration could split the party much as it has the GOP, and they fear losing their majority over the issue. The candidates only address the issue when pressed at debates or other venues, he said, because theyre afraid of scaring centrist or independent voters, but dont want to alienate Hispanic voters either.

Thats basically the excuse, that if they do work on this theyll drive Democrats from the majority, Wilkes said. They dont want to take a vote that would lose some moderate white voters.

Democrats are happy to engage Hispanic voters only in a limited way to nudge them toward the Democratic Party, he added.

Theyd rather get the support from having Republicans drive Latino voters away, Wilkes said. Theyre basically saying, We wont attack you; vote for me.

The Democratic campaigns vehemently dispute this, insisting they are determined to solve the issue and not afraid to talk about it.

Obamas campaign said this week that the senator, as a son of an immigrant, is committed to solving the issue, pointing to amendments he offered with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) during the immigration debate this year.

His father came to this country for the same reasons that millions of immigrants come to this country, Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki wrote in an e-mail. Barack Obama believes immigration reform is an issue for all Americans, which is why he discusses the issue often on the campaign trail, why he has been a leading voice on the issue in the Senate and why he is committed to reviving immigration reform in his first year in office.

Fabiola Rodriguez-Ciampoli, Sen. Clintons director of Hispanic communications, said any suggestion that Clinton is only talking about immigration in front of Hispanic groups is absolutely not true.

She added that Clinton will make it a priority to start fighting for it when she gets to the White House.

Leslie Sanchez, a GOP consultant and author of the new book Los Republicanos: Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other, said Hispanics decry Democratic hypocrisy.

Pointing to Emanuels comments, Sanchez said Hispanic voters see the candidates saying one thing in front of Hispanic groups, but they dont hear the Democratic leadership on the Hill making any effort to tackle the issue.

Adding to pressure on some Democratic candidates is the fact that one of them, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, would be the countrys first Hispanic president.

When I talk about immigration reform, as somebody that is Latino, from a Mexican mother, who spent early days in Mexico, all I want to say is we are a nation of laws, Richardson told SEIU. Obviously, we have to think about our security as a nation. But it bothers me when the media portrays illegal immigrants always jumping over fences or swimming across rivers and people chasing them. What about those men and women that are immigrants that are fighting for America in Iraq on behalf of our defense?

Wilkes said he thinks Richardson is probably the most sincere of the candidates who say they would tackle the issue if they get to the White House.