Prospects for an immigration overhaul are fizzling this year and some Democratic lawmakers are focusing blame on the pugnacious Democratic operative who works just down the hall from President Obama.
Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff and longtime party strategist, has argued privately that it’s a bad time for Democrats to push an immigration bill, a potential land mine in the midst of a crucial midterm election year.
Emanuel’s stance, coupled with his long-held wariness about the politics of immigration, is emboldening key Democrats to come forward and ask that he step aside from the issue.
“There’s always a sense that no matter how hard we work, to get through the White House, we have to get through Rahm,” said U.S. Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “I would like immigration not to be part of the chief of staff’s portfolio. It would make our ability to convince and access decision-makers in the White House a lot easier.”
Emanuel has a complicated history with the immigration issue, dating back to the 1990s. As a top aide to former President Bill Clinton, he stressed the message that Clinton was hard-nosed about policing illegal immigration.
Later, as a Chicago congressman who took on the assignment of installing more Democrats in the House, Emanuel cautioned that immigration was the “third rail of American politics,” dangerous to those who touch it.
Now, as Obama’s top aide, Emanuel has argued much the same thing in private meetings. He has warned that pressing ahead with an immigration bill could jeopardize the chances of moderate and conservative Democratic candidates in the run-up to the midterms, according to people familiar with the matter.
A practiced nose-counter, Emanuel has also questioned whether there are enough Republican votes to help pass a bill that, among other things, would provide a path to legal status for the 11 million immigrants living here illegally.
Democratic lawmakers and advocates who have clashed with Emanuel over the years fear that immigration is destined to be a second-tier priority as long as he is in his current role.
“It’s going to be much easier for this issue to move after Rahm Emanuel leaves the White House,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network, a think tank. “Rahm has a long history of a lack of sympathy for the importance of the immigration issue.”
A White House spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
With time running out, the chances of an immigration overhaul this year are receding. No bill has yet been introduced in the Senate. Come June, the Senate will be enmeshed in the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.
Certainly, Obama has shown he is in no rush. At a Mexican heritage event earlier this month, Obama said he wanted to “begin work” on the issue this year — not complete a bill in that time frame. Yet, as a candidate in 2008, Obama promised to address immigration in his first year in office.
Emanuel is part of a cluster of Democratic political operatives and pollsters who have seen immigration as treacherous terrain.
U.S . Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said that when Emanuel chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2006 election cycle, “he believed the question of immigration is a political liability to a series of members. And I don’t know anything that has changed his mind on that.”
In Washington, Emanuel once lived in the basement of the house of Stan Greenberg, a former Clinton pollster.
Greenberg and others wrote a memo in 2007 warning that many Democratic voters take a hard-line position on immigration, which they called a “real wedge issue.”
About the same time, Emanuel described immigration as a political “third rail,” said proponents of reform. “Rahm Emanuel threw immigrants under the bus,” advocate Frank Sharry said at the time.
By that point, a bitter rift had developed between Emanuel, then a House member, and some members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
In 2005, some in the caucus withheld their Democratic dues out of frustration with party leaders, including Emanuel. They objected that dues money was going to vulnerable Democrats who, for reelection purposes, were taking a strict stance on illegal immigration.
Rep. Joe Baca (D-Rialto) said in an interview: “Every member of the CHC was very concerned with Rahm Emanuel. I know Rahm had a duty to protect the marginal members, but that was also going against some of our principles in what we stood for in trying to deal with comprehensive immigration.”
Immigration was part of Emanuel’s portfolio when he worked for Clinton in the 1990s. Part of Emanuel’s job was making sure that Clinton’s enforcement efforts were publicized. The idea was to portray Clinton as a different kind of Democrat who made law and order a focus.
Doris Meissner, a former head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said she spoke to Emanuel in those years: “Immigration was one of the things he monitored, and he had a very strong sense that enforcement…needed to be visible.”
Emanuel’s history makes immigration advocates uneasy.
Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, said: “At the end of the day, if the president doesn’t come out swinging aggressively [on immigration], rightly or wrongly, a lot of fingers will be pointed at Rahm.”