Immigration proved too hot for Bush, Congress to handle

Times Staff Writer

For most of this year, immigration reform looked like an issue whose time had finally come, with the unusual confluence of a Republican president, a Democratic Congress and the public all demanding a solution.

But the spectacular collapse of the Senate’s bipartisan immigration legislation last week demonstrated that the seemingly auspicious political environment was no match for an issue that was just too hot to handle.

The bill’s demise relegates illegal immigration to a backlog of national problems -- such as Social Security’s impending insolvency and the federal budget deficit -- that the president and Congress have not been able to solve.


“It smells an awful lot like Social Security,” said former Rep. Leon E. Panetta, a California Democrat who had a big hand in the last overhaul of immigration law, in 1986. “People are hesitant to touch a solution, because it is going to aggravate some very powerful constituencies who are going to come after them.”

The obstacles to reaching a consensus on immigration speak volumes about the nation’s politics and culture -- and how much they have changed in the two decades since Congress last dealt with the problem.

Since President Reagan signed the landmark legislation, which legalized some 3 million undocumented immigrants, the media environment has been transformed by talk radio and a 24/7 cable news cycle that fuels emotions on the political extremes. An influx of illegal immigrants has altered the population across the nation, not just in a handful of border states. And the political system has become so polarized that lawmakers’ compromise-building skills seem to have atrophied.

In the wake of those changes, the Senate battle over immigration showed how hard it now is for Congress and the president to confront emotional issues when an incensed minority tries to derail the efforts.

Polls have shown that most Americans favor allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens if they learn English, pay fines and meet other requirements. But the opinions expressed on senatorial phones and in e-mails were overwhelmingly those of the politically agitated opposition.

Proponents of legalization contend the problem of illegal immigrants will only get harder to solve as the number grows -- and as public anger intensifies.


“The divisions get deeper and wider with the passage of time,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a presidential candidate.

But the issue is not an easy one to overlook: Illegal immigration is woven tightly into the fabric of day-to-day lives across the country.

Failure to decide how to handle the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. is tantamount to establishing a permanent underclass larger than the population of Ohio.

Absent of federal action, a major shift could occur in the national balance of power on illegal immigration: More state and local governments are likely to act on their own in response to clamor for a crackdown. The result would be to the detriment of those who seek a solution more accepting of illegal immigrants and could create a patchwork of conflicting laws.

Nevertheless, it is hard to see Bush and Congress revisiting the issue soon. Key players in the debate -- especially those who took the lead in seeking a comprehensive solution -- are unlikely to risk another dramatic failure.

For Bush, the immigration initiative was the domestic policy capstone of his second-term agenda -- and the cornerstone of his plan to expand the GOP by making his party more welcoming to Latinos. Now, his domestic policy cupboard is bare, and his hopes of building a lasting GOP majority are in tatters.


Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading Bush ally on the issue, has seen his presidential prospects dim in no small measure because of his support for the immigration bill. His rivals for the presidency delight in pointing out that he cosponsored the bill with liberal icon Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

For Democrats, who control the House and Senate, another failed attempt at immigration overhaul could be exploited by Republicans who criticize their stewardship of Congress as unproductive.

And incumbents of both parties risk the wrath of a public that is increasingly jaundiced about Washington’s ability to address major problems.

“Americans don’t believe the government is representing them, acting on their behalf,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). “We will not restore their confidence if we fail to act.”

The immigration bill, the product of a “grand bargain” by a bipartisan coalition including Kyl and Kennedy, died in part because its backers’ enthusiasm wasn’t strong enough against the intensity of its opponents.

Its authors were operating in a very different political environment than in 1986. Back then, there were far fewer illegal immigrants, concentrated in a handful of states. Crafting an immigration compromise required lawmakers only to balance the competing concerns of special interests directly affected by the policy -- employers, immigrant groups, agribusiness; lawmakers largely didn’t have to worry about managing powerful national political forces. Few politicians thought of it as a life-or-death political issue.


“It was much more an insiders’ debate,” said Doris Meissner, who served as immigration commissioner during the Clinton administration. “It did not engage the country in the way this debate is engaging the country. It was not a galvanizing issue.”

Now immigration is a national issue that reaches far beyond the interests directly affected. And border security concerns have heightened since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A Gallup Poll in 2000 found that only 15% of those surveyed worried a great deal about illegal immigration; that jumped to 45% this year.

What’s more, polls indicate that the issue is figuring more prominently in how voters size up political candidates. In a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press last month, 54% said a presidential candidate’s stand on immigration would be very important in their decision on how to vote; 34% said it would be somewhat important. As recently as 2004, immigration was not even in the top 20 issues.

“What is clear is the level of anxiety about illegal immigration has been rising, and been accelerating in the last few years,” said Roberto Suro, director of the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center. “One element of the anxiety is a sense the federal government has failed in one of its basic responsibilities.”

Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who supported the Bush immigration initiative, contends that politicians and analysts have exaggerated the potential political fallout from supporting liberalization of immigration law.


“You cannot show me an election where immigration was the deciding issue,” Norquist said. “If this was a silver-bullet issue, where is President Tancredo?” he said, referring to the longshot presidential campaign of Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a leading critic of illegal immigration.

But it is not surprising that lawmakers -- especially in conservative states -- fear political fallout because the bill provoked opposition that was striking in its intensity and viciousness. Critics threatened to seek primary opponents for Republican backers of the bill. Proponents were booed and heckled at party conventions and town-hall meetings. Some lawmakers received threats and reported them to the Capitol Police.

“You should go into the witness protection program because of your work on this issue,” said one letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

The crucial Senate roll call last week reflected a bipartisan consensus that the bill was fraught with risk for anyone facing voters soon. Of the 33 senators who may run for reelection in 2008, 23 voted to kill the immigration bill.

That suggests that one legacy of the immigration imbroglio is a transformation of the issue from a shining opportunity for bipartisan cooperation into the new “third rail” of American politics -- an issue that, like Social Security reform, politicians will flee as if their political lives are at stake.