Features

Lifting the welcome mat?

Immigration | Once supporters of a guest-worker program, Capitol Hill Democrats now have to face restrictionists in their own party

Issue: "Darfur," Nov. 25, 2006

Match a president who introduced the idea of a revolutionary guest-worker program with a new Congress led by lawmakers who had previously supported the idea, and the thought of President George W. Bush signing into law meaningful immigration reform is not only viable but likely.

Republican pundits said a legacy-minded President Bush could at least find an ironic bit of solace in the Democratic wave that swept Republicans from control of both the House and the Senate on Nov. 7. Comprehensive immigration reform may have been out of reach with enforcement-only Republicans blocking a guest-worker approach. But in January Bush's allies on immigration will control Congress.

Not so fast, say Democratic strategists. To act on Bush's immigration agenda, the new party of power in Congress must first overcome a divide of their own. In a debate filled with so many moving parts on both sides of the aisle, both Republicans and Democrats are trying to forge an immigration compromise while attracting the growing Latino vote-and without turning off anti-immigration constituencies in both parties.

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"I don't think [immigration reform] will be a slam dunk," said Democratic strategist Christopher Dorval, who helped operate the issue-tracking website Immigration2006.org leading up to the Nov. 7 elections. "It wasn't in the last session. It's complex and it has a lot of complications and nuances. Most of the great issues that ever get resolved in Washington take time."

Just as Republicans faced hurdles from an anti-immigration segment of the party, Dorval said Democrats could face similar hurdles. A union-opposed guest-worker program seemed like a long shot in the current Congress, leaving Democrats free to support the idea without the risk of alienating their labor constituency. But once Democrats control Congress, party leaders may be faced with a tough strategic decision: Should they embrace an emerging Latino population increasingly aligned with the Democratic party or stay true to union support that has supported the Democratic party for decades?

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says the new Democratic leadership ought to remember which constituency rolled out 75,000 volunteers on Election Day and spent $40 million for Democratic candidates. After the election, Sweeney said, the Democrat-led Congress must pass a "reasonable immigration policy that protects the rights of all workers." That's code for no guest-worker policy.

Union leaders like Sweeney have consistently opposed both Republican and Democratic calls for a guest-worker program they feel could endanger union jobs. Other unions, like the Latino-centric United Farm Workers, oppose the current guest-worker scenarios because despite the program's promise to provide a path to citizenship, it would not be generous enough to alien farm workers, they say.

Democrats seem to be listening already. Whereas things like debating a minimum wage hike and the Bush administration's Iraq War policy seem to be top priorities for the incoming Congress, comprehensive immigration reform didn't make the cut.

Douglas Rivlin of the left-leaning National Immigration Forum says the threat from labor groups is strong-but so are the pro-reform forces. "There will be detractors on the restrictionist side who say it is too generous and detractors from the left that will say it is not generous enough and has too much enforcement," Rivlin said. "I suspect some in labor will try to scuttle things in the Senate, as they tried to last year, but they will be offset by others in labor, not to mention the Catholic Church, many evangelicals, local and national Latino and immigrants groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, governors, state legislatures, etc. [It's] a formidable coalition."

But some Republicans say they will use whatever power they can muster to prevent a Democrat-led Senate from overreaching and offering what they call too much amnesty. Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl signaled a possible Republican filibuster should Democrats advance Bush-supported legislation that provides a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants. "It would be in order," the Arizona Republican told radio host Laura Ingraham. "My only question is whether we've got the votes to do it."

A Republican filibuster might not be what GOP leaders have in mind, though. According to reports, Republicans appear ready to elevate Florida Sen. Mel Martinez (a guest-worker program supporter) to become the party's general chairman. In the role, the Cuban-American politician will be charged with being the public face of the Republican Party in a time when the GOP knows it must bridge the gap to conservative Hispanic voters.

Republicans had looked to immigration as the silver bullet to save them from huge losses in the midterm elections, but the plan failed to save many enforcement-only candidates and may have actually hurt the party. Exit polls indicate only 30 percent of Hispanic voters on Nov. 7 sided with Republicans in the November elections. By way of contrast, between 40 percent and 44 percent of Hispanics supported President Bush in 2004.

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