Immigration Reform Advocates Push Forward in Tough Economy

Jim Snyder, The Hill, February 17, 2009

Backers of sweeping immigration policy changes, bolstered by the growing importance of the Hispanic voting bloc, are urging lawmakers to tackle the touchy subject this year despite rising unemployment levels among legal residents.

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Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told The Hill that he plans to speak on the House floor every week on the need for Congress to act.

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But supporters acknowledge that rising joblessness creates a public-relations problem, if nothing else: How do you provide millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship at a time when millions of legal residents are out of work?

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the chief critics of so-called comprehensive reform efforts, has said it was “particularly infuriating” to know that there are an estimated 7 million illegal workers in the United States when unemployment is rising.

Opposition to a broad reform package could come from the left, too. Labor groups don’t like efforts to increase guest- and temporary-worker programs, which they believe undercut employment and wages for permanent workers.

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But if the economy is a drag on the cause, supporters say, there are a number of factors that play in their favor.

Democrats, who tend to be more supportive of the reform efforts, now hold stronger majorities in Congress. And there is further evidence that Republican opposition to immigration reform has undercut the party’s support among Hispanics, the fastest-growing voting bloc in the electorate.

Sharry said the recent elections show the politics of the debate have shifted. Once considered a third rail for Democrats–a wedge issue akin to gay marriage–immigration reform now has broad support among voters.

Sharry said voters in swing districts favor the comprehensive immigration reform over an enforcement-only approach by a 2-to-1 margin.

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Stewart Verdery, a former Homeland Security official who as a lobbyist supported a comprehensive reform bill, said the effort is also helped by improvements in border security made since the last big push at reform died on the Senate floor two years ago.

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What’s left is how to deal with the illegal immigrants already here and find the right mix of temporary workers to satisfy businesses without being a deal-killer for labor.

The issue is about creating “fairness among employees,” Sharry said, by giving undocumented workers greater protection from being exploited, which drives down wages across the board.

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The economy provides an obstacle in another sense as well. Addressing this leaves little room for lawmakers to tackle other issues. Congress already has a full plate of controversial matters: a follow-on bailout for the financial-services sector; a package of financial-sector regulatory reforms; and a controversial effort to make it easier for workers to organize.

Given the time and the state of the economy, some supporters say they want to begin the discussion this year with an eye toward passing a bill in 2010.

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Republicans talk more about the rising unemployment levels. Amador said he stresses how the market should determine immigration levels, and also makes a blatant political appeal: “They cannot continue with their stand and retain their seats.”

Verdery, a Republican, said the party is torn. At the national level, party leaders know they can’t continue to antagonize Hispanic voters and centrists who support a broad reform bill and expect to win back their congressional majorities. But the party members in Congress now tend to come from conservative districts that oppose offering illegal immigrants some kind of pass, which leaves them little incentive to compromise.

Opponents of reform have also proven incredibly adept at mobilizing thousands of their supporters to fight any proposal that can be tagged with offering “amnesty” to illegal immigrants. That’s also one reason why some Democrats are as reluctant as Republicans to tackle the issue.

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It was not so long ago that Rahm Emanuel was on the House Democratic leadership team and being accused of throwing immigrants “under the bus” for the sake of strengthening Democrats’ power in the House.

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But now, as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Emanuel is removing roadblocks that stand in the way of some of the legislative agenda benefitting immigrants, ethnic minorities and their advocates.

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For example, he recently cleared the path for increased benefits for legal immigrant children and pregnant women in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, Obama’s first major legislative victory.

The debate was set up by Latino leaders and immigrants’ rights backers as a test of Obama’s and Congress’ commitment to their issues. In negotiations with key senators, Emanuel warned that the bill would not be signed without the immigration benefits.

Obama’s gatekeeper also kicked up a lot of dust by promising black and Hispanic lawmakers that the White House would closely monitor the director of the Census Bureau on the 2010 count–legally under the purview of the Commerce Department–since the census will determine future political representation and the distribution of federal dollars.

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On both issues, Emanuel showed an appreciation for the high Hispanic voter turnout and support for Democrats in 2008 that dramatically shifted the political landscape. The election also proved that all voters want the immigration system repaired, instead of demagogued.

SCHIP “would not have happened without Rahm,” said Janet Murguia, president of National Council of La Raza. “SCHIP demonstrated that not only could they take that stand, but they could take that stand and win.”

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In most races since 2006 in which Republicans tried to use immigration as a wedge issue, Democrats won, Sharry said. He points to Idaho freshman Democrat Walt Minnick, who defeated Republican incumbent Bill Sali in 2008 by favoring a tough enforcement and legalization program over Sali’s deportation strategy. The Idaho district is 7 percent Latino, and Minnick won just over 50 percent of the vote.

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During a recent interview with a dozen Hispanic journalists in the Old Executive Office Building, Emanuel said the administration purposely pushed a more complicated SCHIP proposal that relaxed rules by extending benefits to immigrants who have been in the country for less than five years.

SCHIP shows that “the arrow is pointing in a different direction in relation to immigration politics in this country,” Emanuel told the Hispanic media during the second week of the new administration. SCHIP can be viewed as a down payment on what will be forthcoming from the Obama administration, Emanuel added, according to La Opinion, a Spanish-language newspaper.

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Though forceful on some issues, Emanuel remains evasive about whether Obama will keep his campaign promise to produce a comprehensive immigration plan this year.

While major players agree the economic crisis is the first priority, Democratic lawmakers such as Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, from Emanuel’s home state of Illinois, have not let up the pressure on Emanuel to act this year.

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Immigrant advocates await the administration’s review of immigration raids that were stepped up by former President George W. Bush and that terrorized immigrants and even Hispanics who are U.S. citizens. But Emanuel remains “very mindful” of Obama’s campaign pledge to “rise above the fear and demagoguery,” Murguia said.

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