Bipartisan chance for immigration changes

Times Staff Writer

President Bush said Wednesday that prospects for overhauling immigration laws had improved with the Democratic gains in the midterm election, holding out the hope of bipartisan cooperation.

“I think we have a good chance,” Bush said at a news conference. “It’s a vital issue ... on which we can find some common ground with Democrats.”

Yet some observers warn that rewriting immigration law with Democrats in control of the House -- and possibly the Senate -- may be no easier than it was with Republicans in power.

They say that emboldened Democrats may try to push for a bill that gives more to immigrants, which would prompt strong opposition from lawmakers who favor a tougher line. And, observers added, splits within the Democratic Party over immigration could complicate the matter.

“Comprehensive reform will take a bipartisan solution, and that’s true regardless of who is in power,” said Ed Goeas, president of the Tarrance Group, a Republican strategy firm.


“There’s a weakness in the African American community on the immigration issue” because blacks, a traditionally Democratic group, are at odds with Latinos, another Democratic bloc, over how to rewrite laws, he said.

He also said that many Democrats running in conservative districts echoed Republicans in calling for tough enforcement.

In House races in Pennsylvania, Democrats Patrick Murphy and Chris Carney won after campaigns in which they accused the GOP of being soft on illegal immigration. Claire McCaskill, the Democratic senator-elect from Missouri, also took a tough line. And in Virginia, Democrat Jim Webb -- who holds a slim lead over Republican Sen. George Allen -- accused the incumbent of voting to allow more guest workers into the United States.

“Let’s be honest: There are divisions within the Democrats; it will have to be bipartisan,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which advocates for immigrants’ rights. “Chances go up, but it’s still at best 50-50.”

Many House Republicans based their reelection campaigns partly on opposition to immigration policies that Bush and many Democrats strongly support, including a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants.

That hard-line stance failed to rally voters or to turn tight races, even in border states where immigration is a major issue. Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) all lost, as did Arizona congressional candidate Randy Graf, a Republican who co-founded the Minuteman border patrol group.

Those failures could help Bush within his party.

“The myth that members of Congress need to be afraid of immigration might have been put to rest, because no member of Congress was punished in this election for supporting pro-immigrant legislation,” said Josh Bernstein, federal policy director of the National Immigration Law Center, another advocacy group.