National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America


What Now for the Nation’s Immigration Debate?

July 28, 2006

The following backgrounder was written by Frank Sharry, the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum.

Immigration is now a top-tier public policy priority for American voters.  Americans want action, and they want action this year.  And they have made it clear through numerous polls that the kind of action they want combines increased border security, tougher penalties on employers who hire those here illegally, more future flow visas, and a multi-step process by which undocumented immigrants can come forward, register, pay a fine, pay back taxes, study English, get to the back of the line, and earn citizenship over a period of years.  (For a recent poll conducted by The Tarrance Group and Lake Research Partners, go here; and for a summary of recent polling on immigration reform from a range of different sources over the past several months in pdf format, go here.)

Meanwhile, the political stakes of the debate are becoming clearer.  In the short term, inaction on immigration reform in this Congress could backfire and lead likely voters in this year’s mid-terms – especially independents – to punish incumbents for their inaction (see Tarrance/Lake poll).  As Republicans Senators such as Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Mel Martinez (R-FL) have noted, it could be difficult to explain to voters this November how a party in charge of the White House and both chambers of Congress managed to come up empty on a top-tier public priority. 

In the longer term, Republican mishandling of the immigration issue could drive Latino immigrants, the fastest growing group of new voters in the country, away from the President and his party. According to a recent poll by the New Democrat Network (NDN), a Democratic strategy group, immigration has emerged as the top issue (37%) with the related issue of discrimination next (15%); combined these total 52%, while the previous top issue, education, now is in third place (8%) (LINK to NDN poll).  Largely because of this, NDN’s Hispanic Strategy Center (July 19, 2006) finds that “the standing of President Bush and Republicans has dramatically declined with these critical swing voters, potentially wiping out Republican gains made during the Bush years.”  This is because “much of the movement towards Republicans has come with Spanish-language dominant Hispanic voters…English-dominant Hispanics have stayed reliably Democratic, holding throughout this time at about a 2:1 ratio (2004: 65%-34%).  The movement towards Bush has come from the Spanish-dominant, as they have gone from 82%-18% Clinton-Dole in 1996 to 52-48% Kerry-Bush, while increasing from 30% of the Hispanic electorate in 1996 to 48% in 2004.”  Interestingly, NDN also finds that Democrats “have made only modest gains and though well-liked are not well-defined.”

Republican activists such as Grover Norquist fear the party may be repeating a historic error: “We can’t afford to do to the Hispanics what we did to the Roman Catholics in the late nineteenth century: tell them we don’t like them and lose their vote for a hundred years.”  Meanwhile, Democratic strategists such as Simon Rosenberg of NDN believe that if the Democrats can take advantage of this opening it could transform the electoral map by turning Florida and Southwestern states from purple to blue in much the same way that Pete Wilson and the Republican demonization of immigrants in the early 1990’s turned California into a true-blue state. 

There is little doubt that President Bush, Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman and other Republican leaders understand both the need for a comprehensive policy solution and the political dangers of alienating Latino immigrants.  Apparently, their view is not currently shared by House Republican leaders.  They have opted for the highly unusual step of avoiding a conference committee to try to negotiate a final immigration bill from the versions already approved by the House and the Senate. 

Instead, they are conducting hearings in Washington, DC and around the country.  Republican Congressman Jeff Flake accurately observed that most of these hearings are not field hearings but “faux hearings.”  To their credit, a few House committee chairs are conducting hearings in a bipartisan and balanced manner.  But they are the exception.  Most of the hearings seem little more than crude public relations exercises featuring stacked witness panels, laughable attempts to re-brand the bipartisan Senate immigration bill the “Reid-Kennedy bill,” and ridiculous hearing titles (one of our favorites is the title of an upcoming “field hearing” of the House Resources Committee dubbed, “Does the Reid-Kennedy bill compromise our federal lands?”). 

A number of political pundits argue that the House Republican leadership strategy is designed to fire up base voters otherwise despondent with the Republican Party over Iraq and spending.  Many of the same analysts predict it will backfire come November, since it will be hard to explain why Republicans whipped people up but failed to use their majority to address the problem in a way that works.  “We delivered nothing on an issue you care about after spending lots of money and time talking about it” hardly seems like a powerful campaign re-election slogan.

We respectfully submit that the American voters are smarter than the House Republican leadership seems to think.  Slogans, mischaracterizations, and inaction are no substitute for leadership that produces results.  The moment of truth is likely to come in September when the House leadership will have to decide whether to keep agitating or start legislating. 

While the Senate has been courageous in forging an imperfect but unprecedented comprehensive bill on a bipartisan basis, and the President has been strong in his public support of comprehensive reform, many House Republicans seems to regard “comprehensive reform” as some sort of unmentionable disease.  This began to change this past week when Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN) joined with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) to announce the introduction of new legislation they hope will provide a new starting point for House-Senate negotiations.

In addition to tough border and interior enforcement measures, the proposal would allow those here to leave the country briefly, return as temporary workers, and after 17 years would not preclude those who run this gauntlet to qualify for citizenship.  As currently outlined, the measure would not work and would not pass.  The trigger mechanism is unworkable, the worker program is unclear in providing a path citizenship and would leave out many nationalities, the bill would fail to correct our backlogged family reunification policies, the proposal does not have a balanced approach to worker protections and employer access for future flow workers, and it appears to include many harsh, excessive, and unnecessary enforcement measures contained in the House bill.  And since Republicans are too divided to enact the Hutchison-Pence Plan without Democratic votes, and Democrats are wary of huge temporary worker programs with an uncertain – at best – path to citizenship, the measure stands little chance of emerging as the endgame’s “middle ground.”

However, it will be interesting to see in the coming weeks if the Hutchison-Pence initiative encourages other conservatives to speak up for a Pence-like approach to comprehensive reform from a starting point that is different than the enforcement-only bill approved by the House and the comprehensive package fashioned by the Senate.  If so, then prospects for serious negotiations in September would increase.  If not, then we expect the fall Congressional immigration debate to be about partisan posturing and the blame game.

There are few days left on this year’s Congressional calendar.  Negotiating a sweeping immigration reform will take careful deliberations and intense negotiations.  Of course, serious negotiations will not begin until the House Republican leadership calls off the faux hearings and gets to the bargaining table.  Even if members of both chambers and parties agreed to such a process, it would be difficult to get a good bill done and approved.  And election years make controversial legislation harder than usual. 

This makes the challenge faced by Congress and the White House that much more challenging.  Will our leaders opt for politics as usual and inaction on policy, or for leadership that overcomes politics as usual and produces workable policy?  Is workable comprehensive immigration reform an idea whose time has come or a bridge too far?  We are confident that the nation is ready.  We are less confident that our nation’s political leaders are. 

The fight, like this Congressional session, is far from over.  Here’s hoping that we get it done, and, even more importantly, that we get it done right.

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