Following a raucous summer of contentious hearings, noisy rhetoric, and promises of immediate action, Congress, unable to find a quick solution, quietly tabled debate on immigration reform until after this month's elections.
For congressional Republicans, many having touted immigration reform as a top agenda item for much of the year, the maneuver could prove risky – control of the House of Representatives is at stake this month. Of course, in an autumn loaded with concerns over Iraq, fears about North Korea and a nasty scandal about e-mailing congressional pages, their inaction gained some political cover.
Immigration reform is fraught with emotion, from the joy of united families to the intense anger of those who fear that an unregulated flood of unauthorized immigrants will damage America.
It ignites fierce debate throughout the country, ranking second only to the war in Iraq for national concern. Behind those emotions are powerful economic realities that drive the debate. Immigration reform has many levels of complexity, as Congress, to its chagrin, discovered earlier this year. The Hispanic community itself is divided on many facets of the reform effort.
Two reform bills, one passed by the House and one by the Senate, have been set aside, like abandoned orphans, until after the midterm elections. The Republican-backed House bill (see sidebar for a comparison between the two bills) makes undocumented immigration into the United States a felony, calls for far more border security, and virtually slams the door on future citizenship. Hispanic voters have expressed overwhelming opposition to it.
The Senate passed a much more immigrant-friendly bill last spring. It includes a provision that allows pathways to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. When the two wildly divergent bills emerged last summer, Congress took a collective gasp of air. Forging a compromise seemed unlikely.
"It is the legislative equivalent of marrying a giraffe and a hippopotamus," Tamar Jacoby, a spokesperson for the conservative Manhattan Institute, wrote in The Washington Post. Rather than attempt such an unnatural mating before the election, Congress performed a vanishing act with the entire reform effort. This put Democrats in the driver's seat this fall, because most Democrats are united behind the Senate bill.
Republicans are split between the two approaches. Their support of the House bill rankled Hispanic and other voters because they feel the measure punishes immigrants. Recent surveys underscore this growing dissatisfaction. In 2004, President Bush captured 40 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide. Up from 34 percent in 2000, it was the best share ever recorded for a Republican presidential candidate. A recent poll by the Pew Hispanic Center, though, showed that only 16 percent of Hispanics today believe that the Republican Party has the best position on immigration.
The wariness extends beyond Hispanics on this issue – a May 11, 2006, Newsweek magazine poll showed that 61 percent of all Americans disapprove of the way President Bush is handling immigration reform.
That may not equate to having the same position as Hispanics, and both parties may feel a backlash after Congress's fumbling progress. A Time magazine poll late last spring indicated that 68 percent of Americans feel that illegal immigration into the United States is a "very serious" problem. Nearly 50 percent of those polled in the Pew Hispanic survey said they feel that undocumented immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values and are a "burden on the country." Many are concerned that an estimated 12 million unauthorized immigrants now live in the United States, and more are coming at a rate of about 1 million per year. That's five times the number of undocumented immigrants entering the country in the 1980s.
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