At the White House, divisions over immigration

Top aides to President Obama are divided over the urgency of passing an immigration overhaul, with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel worried that pushing such a volatile issue in an election year could eat into the Democrats’ congressional majority.

Other aides don’t want to wait. And Obama himself is more willing than his chief of staff to risk the political fallout that may come from providing a path to legal status for the estimated 12 million people living in the U.S. illegally, according to people familiar with the views of both men.

The divergent opinions within the White House underscore the difficulty of the immigration issue, particularly during campaign season. Complicating the question is the tough new anti-immigration law in Arizona, which makes it a state crime to lack immigration paperwork and requires police to determine whether people they stop are in the country legally. The law has intensified calls for Obama to make good on a campaign promise and address the nation’s strained immigration system quickly, before more states step into the void.

Emanuel’s concerns are twofold, people familiar with his reasoning said. He is worried about moving ahead with a bill that could produce a voter backlash against Democrats running in conservative districts. As a former Democratic congressional campaign chairman, Emanuel helped recruit some of these candidates in the 2006 elections that returned the House to Democratic control.

He is also concerned that the votes to pass an immigration bill simply aren’t in place.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said in an interview that he had discussed the immigration issue with Emanuel and believes that, “like the president, he supports the goal of comprehensive immigration reform.”

“But Rahm is a pragmatist and a realist, and he’s going to want to see a path to passage,” Durbin added. “And that’s what we’re trying to find.”

The internal debate may account for the inconsistent messages coming out of the White House. Speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One the other day, Obama aired a viewpoint that sounded as if it might have come from Emanuel. He said that after a year of exhausting policy debates, Congress may lack the “appetite” to take up immigration. That suggested the president was prepared to wait until 2011, at the earliest.

One day later, in response to an immigration blueprint issued by Senate Democrats, the White House released a statement that sounded a different note. “We can no longer wait to fix our broken immigration system,” it said.

Those who’ve spoken to Emanuel about immigration said he has long seen it as a dangerous issue for Democrats.

“Over the years, Rahm has expressed reservations about immigration reform and what it would do to the larger [Democratic] coalition,” said Henry Cisneros, who served in the Clinton administration with Emanuel.

In previous roles, Emanuel has envisioned a slower timetable for passing an immigration bill than the one Obama has laid out. In 2007, he told an immigration reform advocate that Republican presidents had botched the issue, making it difficult for a future Democrat in the White House to pass a bill until the second term.

Juan Salgado, chairman of the board of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said that Emanuel made this point when the pair spoke at a conference in 2007.

“He basically said there was no way this is happening in a first term,” Salgado said in an interview. “My reaction was, he’s wrong and we’re going to prove him wrong.”

An Emanuel aide, when asked about that comment, noted that he made it “before becoming chief of staff to President Obama.”