Still no slam dunk on an immigration bill

Times Staff Writer

For Democrats pondering the challenges of overhauling immigration policy during next year’s Congress, incoming members like Claire McCaskill provide an early warning.

In a September television advertisement, the Democratic senator-elect from Missouri sat at a kitchen table and looked directly into the camera. “Let me tell you what I believe in,” she said. “No amnesty for illegal immigrants.”

Democrats presented a largely united front on immigration this year, providing crucial support for a measure that would have allowed illegal immigrants to gain eventual citizenship -- a bill critics attacked as “amnesty.” But as the party prepares to take power on Capitol Hill in January, tensions are surfacing over this provision and other aspects of the complex debate.


Though Democratic leaders insist that rewriting immigration law is a priority, they acknowledge that building consensus on how to do that will be tricky. They must deal with competing camps within the party and address concerns raised by core constituencies -- hurdles that could block passage of a final bill.

McCaskill and a slew of incoming House Democrats took stances that, in the shorthand of campaign rhetoric, seemed more conservative on immigration issues than the positions staked out by the party’s congressional stalwarts.

Some unions strongly object to Democratic support for guest worker programs that would not allow participants to gain citizenship. Party leaders worry that backing a bill that includes a path to citizenship would alienate some African Americans, who have traditionally competed with Latino immigrants for jobs. And the Democrats will have to contend with a newly energized left wing, which could push to do more for legal and illegal immigrants.

“Just because we have the majority doesn’t mean we have enough votes for an immigration reform bill,” said Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana). “We’re going to have to take the temperature” on how to proceed.

Congressional Democrats earlier this year supported President Bush’s vision for a policy revamp, which included tightened border security, a guest worker program and a process to give millions of illegal immigrants legal status.

But Bush faced a revolt in his own party. House Republicans favored their enforcement-only approach and skirted serious negotiations over a Senate bill that embraced Bush’s views. The only major immigration bill to emerge from Congress authorized 700 miles of new fencing along the border with Mexico.

On the campaign trail, many GOP candidates stressed the House’s “get-tough” position on immigration policy. The consequences of this strategy are subject to debate. Defenders say that to do otherwise would have risked the wrath of core Republican voters. But others note that based on exit polls, the nationwide level of Latino support for the GOP was about 30% -- compared with the more than 40% share Bush won in 2004.

Many Democrats say the midterm election results showed that voters won’t punish candidates who back a broad immigration overhaul. Even so, how aggressively the party will push for an immigration bill in the next Congress remains in doubt.

House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) did not include the issue on her list of immediate goals. She did, however, broach the subject with Bush in their first post-election meeting.

Democrats say crafting an immigration bill that could pass will require careful planning and prolonged negotiations. It is in Pelosi’s best interests, they say, to develop the operation of her caucus by focusing on other initiatives that enjoy wide support before presenting it with a difficult vote on a thorny subject.

Immigration is “a hot-button issue, it’s a racism issue, it’s a terrorism issue; of course it’s scary for Democrats to get in the way of that,” said Joseph Garcia, director of the Hispanic Strategy Center at NDN, a party advocacy group. He added that a broad immigration package “is hard to explain in 30 seconds, particularly if the other side is using the word ‘amnesty.’ ”

One House Democratic strategist estimates that about half of the almost 30 seats that Democrats took from Republicans went to candidates who took conservative positions on immigration reform.

These newcomers include Rep.-elect Heath Shuler of North Carolina, who “is against amnesty,” spokesman Andrew Whalen said. “If there’s friction with the party [on the issue], there’s nothing we can do about it; his views really do reflect his district.”

Persuading Schuler and similar Democrats to back the type of immigration bill the Senate passed this year will be difficult, particularly in cases where the lawmakers won by small margins and can expect tough 2008 re-election bids. Still, many Democrats think it can be done.

“I remember when I was a freshman, you go through a campaign and you honestly say what you think, but ... there are always things you need to learn,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose).

Other Democrats say that passing the legislation won’t be possible without Republican support. “We will need to find Republicans and count our votes on the other side,” Sanchez said.

Democratic leaders also are bracing for a push from lawmakers and groups on the party’s left who would like to do more for immigrants.

“People on the extreme left are seeing this as an opportunity to come up with an ideal bill, and we’re trying to tell them, ‘Yes, we’re in control, but only by [small margins],’ ” said a senior Democratic Senate aide, who would speak about the immigration debate within the party only on the condition of anonymity.

There is also concern about the pressure union officials could exert to block guest worker programs that, in line with Bush’s position, would not allow workers to eventually gain citizenship. “With each month, they become more and more opposed” to such proposals, the Senate aide said.

And though Democratic strategists see the pursuit of immigration reform as essential to winning the burgeoning Latino vote, there is concern that doing so could hurt the party among its most loyal bloc -- African Americans.

“It’s something Democrats say is a concern,” said John Gay of the National Restaurant Assn., whose members employee 12.5 million workers. “I don’t think anybody wants to talk about it, but if you look with a cold eye at the pressure points in the Democratic constituency ... this comes up.”

After an initial burst of optimism in the wake of this month’s election, many immigrant advocates are now wary about the prospects for an immigration bill.

“Can Pelosi get the required number of Democrats on board? Will House Republicans play ball or take an oppositional stance?” asked Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. “Both parties have divisions within their own ranks on immigration. How deep those fissures run within the Democrats remains to be seen.”