National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America


Senator Dick Durbin Leads the Senate Democrats into Battle on Behalf of Immigrants

October 23, 2007

Washington, DCThe following is a statement from Frank Sharry, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, a non-partisan pro-immigrant advocacy group in Washington, DC.

Three cheers for Senate Democrats.  Even though their efforts to enact comprehensive immigration reform fell short this year, they have not given up.  With Majority Leader Harry Reid’s strong support, Senator Dick Durbin will lead the charge to win passage for the DREAM Act, a targeted measure that will benefit talented immigrant kids who attend college or serve in the military.  At the same time, Senator Dianne Feinstein is fighting tooth and nail to enact AgJOBS, a bill that will stabilize labor markets in the agricultural industry while providing a path to earned citizenship for eligible farm workers.  The Senate Democrats are taking chances to get something done. 

Meanwhile, over in the House of Representatives, no immigration legislation has seen the light of day, and at this point, none is expected.  A story in today’s Washington Post may help to explain why.  Citing a close special election in Massachusetts in which the issue of illegal immigration attracted a considerable amount of attention, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and champion of Democratic prospects for maintaining their House majority in 2008, said, "for the American people, and therefore all of us, [immigration has] emerged as the third rail of American politics," Emanuel said. "And anyone who doesn't realize that isn't with the American people."

I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. 

At a press conference today, Senator Durbin spoke with passion about immigrant kids who deserve a break because that is what America at its best is all about.  Meanwhile, in this morning’s newspaper, Rep. Emanuel threw immigrants under the bus because desperate House Republicans are planning to run nasty ads about Democrats and immigration.

We think it might be useful if Rep. Emanuel and others who share his views consider the following history as they evaluate the role of immigration in the nation’s politics.  In 2006, a special election in California-50 to replace the disgraced Duke Cunningham was won by Republican Brian Bilbray.  He and others in the GOP claimed his closer-than-expected victory in a safe Republican district was because he made his opponent, Frances Busby, seem soft on illegal immigration.  (In the week before the election, she did make a huge gaffe by implying that all immigrants—legal or not—should vote for her!)  

The conventional wisdom that took hold following this race was that illegal immigration had arrived as a potent wedge issue that would help the Republicans either limit their losses or even retain control of the House of Representatives.  Then the voters spoke and the conventional wisdom was stood on its head.  Immigration as wedge issue was the dog that did not bark.  Democratic candidates that backed broad and practical reforms overwhelmingly out-performed hard-line Republican candidates.  Meanwhile, there was a dog that did bark: Latino voters made it clear that immigration is a defining issue for the fastest growing group of new voters in the nation, and that those who adopt a hard line will be met with a hard response.  They swung dramatically away from Republicans.

Fast forward to the Congressional race in which Democrat Niki Tsongas beat Republican Jim Ogonowski by a margin of 51-45% in the special election to replace Martin Meehan.  The Washington Post story called it “a shocker” that the race was closer than expected, and that the Republican’s use of immigration as a wedge issue made it so tight.  The challenger painted Tsongas as soft on illegal immigration, especially for her comments the week before the election that immigrants in Massachusetts illegally should be eligible for drivers’ licenses (a practical policy but a political loser – just ask Gray Davis and Elliot Spitzer).  What is buried in the story is that Tsongas received the same percentage of the vote that now-Governor Deval Patrick, a fellow Democrat,  won just last year in his rout of his opponent. 

Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom is setting in.  Republicans will wield immigration as a wedge issue and Democrats better watch out. 

We have seen this movie before.  Bilbray barely wins in a Republican district and it’s because of immigration.  Tsongas wins comfortably and “it’s a shocker” because of immigration.  As a result of the Democrats winning the race, Rahm Emanuel declares immigration the new third rail of American politics.  Put us down as unconvinced. 

So, tomorrow on the Senate floor Dick Durbin will stand up and speak up for immigrants. Tomorrow in the House, Democrats will know that speaking up for immigrants could cost you party support.  And the fastest growing group of voters in the nation will ask: which side are House Democrats on?


The following is an excerpt from the Forum’s statement following the 2006 mid-term.

“Throughout most of the past year, many commentators argued that immigration would prove to be “the gay marriage issue of ’06.”  The argument went something like this: “House Republicans are smart to block comprehensive immigration reform and fight for a fence because in the upcoming elections it will bring out the base, draw conservative Democratic votes, and at least on this one issue, give them some distance from an unpopular President on a controversial issue.”  Brian Bilbray made just such a claim when he won the special election in California-50 to replace the jailed Randy Cunningham.  This view emerged as the conventional wisdom, at least for many, leading into the mid-terms.

Many candidates followed this logic, either out of opportunism or conviction.  How did they fare?

The Senate

Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) hit opponent Bob Casey early and late for Casey’s support for the Senate comprehensive bill passed on a bipartisan basis last May.  Santorum suffered the biggest defeat of any Senate incumbent in this election cycle, losing by 18%.

Katherine Harris repeatedly invoked Senator Bill Nelson’s (D-FL) support for the Senate bill in her comeback attempt.  She lost 60% - 38%.

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was attacked by his opponent, Tom Kean, Jr. (R) for the Senator’s support of comprehensive immigration reform.  He won going way, 53% -47%.

Senators Cantwell (D-WA) and Stabenow (D-MI) were attacked for their votes in support of allowing legalized immigrant workers to claim credit for social security taxes paid when they had been undocumented.  Both won easily.

Senator Carper (D-DE) was opposed by a one-issue candidate, former INS official and noted immigration restrictionist Jan Ting.  Accused of supporting “amnesty,” Carper won 70% - 29%.

The House

In Arizona-8 Republican Randy Graf lost to Democrat Gabrielle Giffords by 54% - 42%.  This was a closely watched race for a toss up district along the U.S.-Mexico border in a state in which immigration is the number one issue.  Graf made the prophetic statement, "If this issue can't be won in this district [by hard-liners], the argument can be made that it can't be won anywhere in the country."

In Indiana-8, House Immigration Subcommittee Chair John Hostettler (R-IN) was one of the featured Republicans in the summer “field hearings” held by House Republicans to stir up voters on the immigration issue.  He lost by a wide margin.

In Arizona-5 hard liner J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ) is the author of the book “Whatever It Takes” about illegal immigration, and refused to vote for HR 4437, the controversial Sensenbrenner bill, because he thought it did not go far enough.  Hayworth was upset by comprehensive reform advocate Harry Mitchell 51% - 46%.  Two years earlier Hayworth won re-election by 21 points.

In Colorado-7, the race featured hard liner Republican Rick O’Donnell trying to replace another Republican, Bob Beauprez who vacated the seat to run for governor.  O’Donnell was featured in a front page New York Times article arguing that immigration was the biggest issue in his district and that his views were much more popular than those of his comprehensive reform advocate opponent, Democrat Ed Perlmutter.  Perlmutter won 54% - 42%.


In Arizona incumbent and Democrat Janet Napolitano, an early proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, was attacked repeatedly by her opponent Len Munsil for being soft on illegal immigration.  He proposed a half a billion dollar border security initiative as his signature issue.  Napolitano won 63% - 35%.

In Colorado Republican Bob Beauprez staked his campaign on attacking his Democratic opponent, Bill Ritter, for being soft on illegal immigration.  He lost 56% - 41%.

In numerous states Democratic incumbents and candidates came under fire from their opponents for being soft on illegal immigration and for supporting in-state tuition for undocumented students.  In every case – Kansas, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Maryland – the pro-immigrant candidate won and the attacker lost.

In California, Arnold Schwarzenegger took a different tack from many in his party.  He moved to the center on immigration: he stopped applauding the Minutemen, he apologized for his support of Proposition 187 in the past, he dragged his feet on approving the deployment of his state’s National Guard for border duty, and loudly criticized the Republican Congress for not moving on comprehensive immigration reform.  He was rewarded with a huge victory that included 39% of the state’s large group of Latino voters.

So much for the conventional wisdom that being for comprehensive reform would turn out to be a loser and that being a hard line hawk would be a winner.”

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