News Column

Republicans Take Big Gamble by Delaying Immigration Reform

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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.

The conventional wisdom is that those voters taking the hardest line on immigration are already Republican, so taking a hard line may not win votes, just keep them. But the Hispanics vote 6 percent of the total voting population in America might be up for grabs. There are nearly a dozen congressional races that analysts say are too close to call and Democrats only need a net gain of six seats to reclaim control of the House. As the Pew numbers suggest, immigration may turn substantial numbers of Hispanic voters off of the GOP.

"In close races, every vote counts," Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) says. "So, yes, the Hispanic vote matters. It really matters."

But there is no clear evidence that Democrats are taking advantage of any Hispanic dissatisfaction. Even congressional Democrats' "Hispanic agenda," while critical of Republican immigration efforts and the House bill, mostly just calls for supporting the Senate bill.

While Hispanics generally vote Democratic by a two-to-one margin, the Pew Hispanic Center poll indicated that Hispanics who are registered as Republicans still plan to vote for Republican candidates in the fall. This still leaves the "undecided" Hispanic vote the large number of Hispanics who are independent, or who are registered Democrats and crossed party lines in the last election. Will they do so again this fall?

The answer depends upon whom you ask.

"I haven't seen any erosion of support for the president or the Republican Party in my district," says Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who represents the generally pro-GOP 21st District in South Florida. "I think the president and the party are seen as pro-Hispanic. Every president has suffered a drop in popularity during his sixth year in office that's a historical fact. But, I think Hispanics feel that President Bush's heart is in the right place."

However, Representative Lungren says the Democrats have simply done a better job in the battlefield of public relations. "It's frustrating for me because I feel the values of most Hispanics line up with Republican values of family, education, and national security," he says. "But, the Democrats have done a great job in portraying us as anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic. We've allowed ourselves to be caricatured during the debate on the House bill. We need to do a much better job of reaching out."

Representative Diaz-Balart says that part of the problem has been that the media has treated the issue too simply, and in the process painted Republicans as anti-Hispanic. "The truth is, you can be a Republican and be for shutting the borders, and you can be a Republican and be supportive of pathways to legalization, which is what I'm for," he says. "The Republican Party is a huge coalition of voters; a diverse party with many differing views. The media seems to have a difficult time grasping that fact."

A case can be made that neither party excites the majority of Hispanic voters. Hispanic confidence in both parties has dropped by about 5 percent each in the past two years, according to the Pew Hispanic poll.

Part of the reason is that immigration reform was put aside so deftly as the elections loomed. An emotional, multifaceted issue with no clear-cut resolution, it's exactly the kind of problem no politician likes to address in a stump speech.

Many analysts believe that discussion of immigration reform may be restricted this fall to the promise of candidates to seal the borders against terrorists. The fact that terrorists involved in the 9/11 attack were in the United States legally illustrates how complicated the issue can get.

Firmly in the Republican camp is the estimated quarter of the American public that favors slamming all borders shut and deporting all unauthorized immigrants. "Poll after poll shows that this group is probably not open to persuasion," wrote Mr. Jacoby, who has written often on immigration issues in national publications. "But, what discussion of the issue can do is energize some of the other 75 percent of Americans, who, surveys show, are more pragmatic … and less intense in their beliefs."

Hispanic voters tend to be far more lenient toward immigration in general, but they are also divided among the specific issues. For example, while most (72 percent) Hispanics believe that illegal immigrants help the U.S. economy, 41 percent also said only undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for more than five years should be permitted to stay, according to the Pew Hispanic survey.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) says that while the calls from his constituents run about 20-to-one for enforcing the borders and limiting immigration, the Hispanics in his San Diego-area district are generally on the side of more open immigration.

"However, they also express great concern about national security," he says. "The calls we get from my district from Hispanics are about 50-50 regarding illegal immigrants. The Hispanics who came here legally are generally against allowing so many undocumented workers into this country. They say, 'We came here legally, why can't they?' These are hard-working people who feel the others cheated by coming here illegally. Those who are for amnesty and opening the borders are often undocumented workers themselves, or they often have illegal immigrants, sometimes family members, living in their homes. There simply is not a consensus on many of these issues within the Hispanic community."

Surveys show that Hispanics closest to the immigrant experience are more likely to support the most generous legalization process. Among first-generation Latinos, 61 percent favor full amnesty, according to the Pew Hispanic poll. Among second-generation Hispanics that number drops to 51 percent, and among third-generation Hispanics the number supporting blanket legalization falls to 40 percent.

And while the immigration protests of last summer garnered a great deal of public attention, but their accompanying battle cry of "Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote" has yet to produce a hoped-for voter registration surge among Hispanics.

"I was anticipating a huge jump in registration," Jess Cervantes, whose California-based company analyzes Hispanic voter trends, told reporters. "I didn't see it."

Or as The Associated Press reported, "(New voter registration numbers among Hispanics) are well below 2004 and do not indicate the watershed awakening that advocates had envisioned."

Pro-immigration activists have always had a heavyweight ally, though. Many of America's largest corporations, most of which make substantial political contributions, are deeply concerned about immigration. "I don't think anyone involved would deny that many American corporations favor open immigration policies," says Representative Issa, who has worked on immigration reformfor more than a year. "What you have, in effect, are three distinct entities with three different agendas. You have Middle America, which has strong concerns about the numbers of illegal immigrants coming into this country and about terrorists crossing the borders; you have other voters, including recent immigrants, who want a more opendoor policy; and you have big business, which also favors increased immigration as a source for its workforce. It's not easy trying to please all these groups."

Democrats generally have an easier time of it because their more lenient stance pleases both the big corporations and many of their constituents although a sizeable group of conservative Democrats remain vocal about closing the borders.

But bridging that divide is much harder in the GOP, which must accommodate both a majority of Republican voters who are very concerned about undocumented immigrants, and the desires of the party's traditional ally, big business. And the Hispanic community, growing as it is, must be reckoned with.

The immigration reform debate is likely to be revisited in January. Most "crystal-ball" analysts say a compromise between the House and Senate bills will have to be hammered out. Most likely, a mix of the two bills, with provisions for stricter border security, a work-visa program, and some type of pathway to citizenship, will be at its core. It is also likely that the felony aspect of the House bill will be dropped from the final bill because it is viewed as the most punitive aspect of that legislation.

Getting to that final compromise will not be easy, though, especially for Republicans, who must somehow bridge the wide gulf in ideology. For now, they can only hope that the strategic gamble they took in delaying action will not backfire at the ballot box.

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