By Gary Martin – Express-News – from My San Antonio
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s campaign promise to overhaul immigration laws next year faces an uphill battle in Congress, and it could hurt Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections whether it succeeds or fails.
Division among Democrats and solid Republican opposition to key provisions of any sweeping reform bill will be major hurdles. Democrats facing tough re-election battles will be hard-pressed to vote to legalize the status of unauthorized immigrants during an economic downturn.
But inaction on the issue could alienate crucial Hispanic voters who helped deliver the White House to Democrats last year.
“After being on our national agenda for a decade, comprehensive immigration reform’s time has come,” said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Perhaps. But the House Democratic leadership is so skittish about the issue that it wants the Senate to go first.
“I think it’s a bad environment for much to get done,” said Gary Segura, a Stanford University political science professor.
Administration officials are laying the groundwork to begin the push for a reform bill next year that includes citizenship for 12 million unauthorized immigrants.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the White House point person on immigration reform, told the Senate it must “seize the moment” to change the current system.
And Citizenship and Immigration Services is gearing up to process an estimated 12 million unauthorized immigrants if a law granting a path to citizenship is passed.
“We will be prepared,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, the agency’s director.
But enormous pools of quicksand await immigration reform in Congress, where separate bills are being written in the House and Senate.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, is expected to unveil his bill early next month. A House bill with 87 co-sponsors was filed two weeks ago by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who heads the immigration task force for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
As Gutierrez filed his bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., reiterated her pledge to wait for the Senate to move first, essentially protecting vulnerable Democratic colleagues from having to vote on the emotionally charged issue if it dies in the other chamber.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is helping Democrats with tough GOP challenges, said House leaders want to be sure the Senate can “get something done.”
“That’s where the immigration reform debate broke down last time, and that’s where it should begin this time,” said Van Hollen, D-Md.
Senate Republicans blocked a bipartisan reform bill in 2007. For Democrats, even with a majority, it is uncertain whether they can muster the votes to pass another. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he will bring the issue to the floor next year, but he has yet to lay out a timetable for addressing it.
The Senate bill is expected to contain citizenship measures that many Republicans criticize as an amnesty program.
The House bill would grant permanent resident status to unauthorized immigrants who, after paying a $500 fine, learning English and passing background checks, could gain citizenship.
Democrats concede such proposals could be difficult to pass when U.S. unemployment hovers at 10 percent.
“How can they allow 12 million illegal immigrants to take jobs that should go to citizens and legal immigrants?” asked Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio.
In the Senate, the legislative calendar for next year includes health care reform, an overhaul of financial regulations and energy legislation.
“You would have to probably put immigration reform behind those,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said reform is imperative. He dismissed GOP complaints about border security, saying “enforcement benchmarks and triggers included in prior legislation have been substantially met.”
Leahy wants to expand the H-2A visa program to provide more foreign workers for temporary and seasonal agricultural work.
The bill also must include guest-worker programs for agricultural producers who compete with growers in countries with lower labor rates, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
“I think a country that’s strong really should be able to produce its own food, but you can’t do it with domestic labor, and that’s just a fact,” she said.
Business groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also want temporary workers. But some labor unions oppose temporary-worker programs and want immigrants to be given permanent status and the same protections U.S. workers get.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who sponsored the ill-fated 2007 bill, said reform that doesn’t include guest-worker plans would alienate any possible GOP support.
Obama promised Hispanic groups during last year’s election that immigration reform would be addressed in his first term. He has called on Congress to act next year. He received 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, according to exit polls, and Hispanic expectations for a reform bill are high.
“There are states that turned blue in his favor, and Latino voters have a lot of influence in those states,” said Angela Kelley of the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank.
Failure on the issue could pose problems for Democrats in the midterm elections and for Obama’s re-election efforts later.
“It’s not that a Latina is going to flip and vote Republican, it’s that she is just not going to vote,” Kelley said. “That would cause Democrats heartburn in 2010, and obviously it’s the same for the president in 2012.”
A Latino Decisions poll this month suggested Hispanics would not significantly punish Democrats running for Congress in 2010 if reform efforts fail, but only 55 percent would cast a vote for a Democrat if nothing is done by 2012.
“They’re really at a crucial point with Latinos, and passing that bill could cement support among Latinos,” Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political science professor.
A Pew Research poll this year found 63 percent of respondents wanted to give unauthorized immigrants a way to become citizens. Republicans point to the same poll’s finding that 73 percent of respondents wanted to limit immigration, beef up border security and toughen penalties on employers who hire unauthorized workers.
Lynsi Burton and Jennifer Dlouhy of Hearst Newspapers contributed to this report.