Sunday, September 26, 2010

Obama's Incremental Approach to Immigration Overhaul Falls Short of Expectations

With comprehensive immigration overhaul off the table, President Obama and his Democratic allies have tried smaller proposals to provide illegal immigrants a path toward citizenship or permanent legal residency -- a strategy that is now being called into question after two efforts fell flat this week.

First, Democrats failed to muster enough votes in the Senate to pass the DREAM Act, which would allow hundreds of thousands of young people to legally remain in the U.S.

Then comedian Stephen Colbert tried to bring attention to the AGJobs bill, which would legalize about 2 million undocumented migrant laborers who have worked on farms for at least two years, by testifying in front of a House panel at the request of Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif..

But Colbert's joke-filled testimony overshadowed the bill, which has languished in Congress for years, as lawmakers argued over whether his performance was appropriate.

With midterm elections just over a month away, the chances of any kind of immigration reform passing this year grows slimmer by the day, disappointing many immigration advocates who reluctantly embraced an incremental approach to reform.

Democrats, who are bracing for disastrous electoral defeats, fear Hispanic voters will stay home in November because of the inaction.

The Hispanic community has criticized President Obama for failing to keep his promise to tackle immigration reform in the first year of his presidency. In April, Obama said Congress lacked the "appetite" to take on immigration, essentially removing it from the legislative agenda.

But some lawmakers aren't ready to throw in the towel yet on immigration. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J, vowed earlier this month to unveil a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill before the November elections.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., told the Hill newspaper that he's confident that Senate will take another shot at passing the DREAM Act, pointing to a Senate rule that allows the bill, with two days' notice, to be brought to the chamber's floor for consideration at any time.

"I'm really really hopeful," he told the newspaper. "Their clear intent is to give it another try. When? That's up to them."

Democrats attached the DREAM Act as an amendment to a defense spending bill that Republicans blocked along with two Democrats.

The DREAM Act allows young people to become legal U.S. residents after spending two years in college or the military. It applies to those who were under 16 when they arrived in the U.S., have been in the country at least five years and have a diploma from a U.S. high school or the equivalent.

The Obama administration has deferred the deportation of some of the young people while the politics of the bill played out, drawing heavy criticism from some Republicans.

The administration is also, under a new policy, halting deportation proceedings for up to tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who are married or related to a U.S. citizen or a legal resident who has filed a petition on their behalf. Illegal immigrants with criminal convictions do not qualify under the plan. Critics have called the new policy a free pass for illegals.


GOP Taps Hispanics in Fall Test

A deep lineup of Hispanic Republicans is running for high office this year, giving the party new avenues to court the growing bloc of Latino voters who have largely deserted the GOP in recent years but will be crucial in the 2012 presidential election.

In a twist, many of these candidates are defending the strict, new Arizona law and other measures cracking down on illegal immigration—appealing to white conservatives and to the portion of Hispanic voters who share concerns about border security.

In Nevada, New Mexico, Florida and elsewhere, GOP candidates with names like Martinez, Rubio and Sandoval are staking out tough immigration views.

"There is a stereotype that Hispanics must be in favor of different policies than I am expressing, and that's not what I'm finding at all," said New Mexico GOP gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez, who would be the country's first elected female Hispanic governor.

Ms. Martinez, a prosecutor, has aired television ads in which she stands at the border and promotes her record convicting criminals who sneaked in from Mexico. She promises to end state laws that she says make it easy for illegal immigrants to obtain drivers licenses. Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, is stepping down due to term limits.

The three most prominent Hispanic Republicans on the ballot in November—Florida U.S. Senate hopeful Marco Rubio, Nevada gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval, and Ms. Martinez—are leading in polls and performing well among Hispanic voters. Hispanic GOP House candidates in Florida, Texas and Washington are presenting a similarly conservative agenda.

Within the Republican Party, some strategists see the unusually large number of major Hispanic GOP candidates as key to correcting a misstep in the party's outreach to the nation's fastest-growing voter bloc. Many Hispanics are attracted by the GOP's opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

When ex-President George W. Bush made an effort to win Hispanic voters, his share of that electorate rose to 40% in 2004, from the 34% he won in 2000. In 2006, conservatives rebelled against Mr. Bush's efforts to create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Strategists say the tough tone of some in the party alienated many Hispanics who would otherwise be open to GOP policies on social issues, who took it as a cultural affront. Hispanics moved to the Democrats in the 2006 midterms, and in 2008 President Barack Obama won nearly seven in 10 Hispanic votes, while Republican nominee John McCain won just 31%.

"Hispanics around the country were completely turned off by the immigration debate in 2006," said Whit Ayers, who is Mr. Rubio's campaign pollster. "But having Hispanic candidates be successful on the Republican ticket and visible nationally will go a long way toward rectifying that damage."

Polls show more Hispanics identify with the Democratic Party than Republicans. And Mr. Obama remains popular with that group. But Republicans see an opening amid frustration expressed by some Hispanics that the Obama administration has not fulfilled its promise to overhaul the immigration system.

Polls show many Hispanics are open to conservative views. In a survey last year by the Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization, 56% of Hispanics age 16 and older opposed abortion rights and 44% opposed gay marriage, compared to 34% who supported it. Another Pew survey shows 30% of Hispanics favor the Arizona law, which allows law- enforcement officers to stop suspected illegal immigrants and ask them for proof of legal status. That same poll said that 83% favor a path to citizenship.

GOP strategists say figures such as Mr. Rubio and Ms. Martinez can help persuade more Hispanics that supporting strict immigration laws isn't an ethnic attack. Mr. Ayers, who is also teaming with former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie on a project to study ways to court Hispanic voters, said many of them are religious, family-oriented owners of small businesses who favor lower taxes, which, he said, "sounds like the definition of a Republican."

Some Hispanic leaders and immigration advocates say the more conservative tone on immigration coming from Hispanic candidates reflects a pragmatic calculation that winning as a Republican requires piecing together a more conservative coalition—particularly this year, when the election is expected to be dominated by high conservative turnout. They "cannot get elected on the Hispanic vote only," said Arturo Vargas, director of the National Association of Elected and Appointed Latino Officials. "What you have here are savvy Republican candidates trying to determine what it's going to take to win statewide in 2010."

Lionel Sosa, a longtime GOP strategist who advised Mr. Bush on his outreach strategy, said he questioned whether adopting tougher views on immigration would help, noting Mr. McCain's poor 2008 performance after reversing his support for legalizing undocumented workers. This year's Hispanic conservatives "will hear from their Latino constituency and maybe take a second look," Mr. Sosa said.

In California, another Hispanic candidate, Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, and the party's gubernatorial nominee, Meg Whitman, are both taking a softer line on immigration, vocally opposing the Arizona law. The party there is contending with the legacy of Proposition 187, a GOP-backed ballot measure in 1994 that would have denied health benefits to illegal immigrants and crippled Republicans' standing with Hispanics ever since.

Democrats, meanwhile, are seeking their own advantage. In Nevada, where Mr. Sandoval has drawn fire from local immigrant advocates for supporting the Arizona law, Democratic candidate Rory Reid said in an interview that his GOP foe has "chosen not to stand with his own community."

The Reid campaign is circulating a flier highlighting a quote in which Mr. Sandoval allegedly said he was not concerned about racial profiling against his children because they "don't look Hispanic." The flier asks: "Doesn't Brian Sandoval Care About Our Kids?"

Mr. Sandoval's alleged comment, made to an interviewer for the Spanish-language network Univision, was never aired but was disclosed by the station's news director in a local newspaper column. Mr. Sandoval later said he didn't recall making the comment but if he did, "it was wrong and I sincerely regret it. I am proud of my heritage and my family." Mr. Sandoval's campaign declined a request for an interview.

Some say the dustup won't matter, even though many Hispanics disagree with Mr. Sandoval's views on the Arizona law. "Brian will still be the first Hispanic governor in the history of the state," said Luis Valera, chairman of the Las Vegas-based Latin Chamber of Commerce. "That weighs heavily on people."

Straddling the immigration issue requires careful balance. In a debate last week on the Spanish-language network Univision, Mr. Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles, declared there was "no one running for any office in the United States that's more pro-legal immigration than I am.... I've grown up around immigration my entire life. I've seen the good parts of it, the bad and the ugly."

Then he spoke out against a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants until the Mexico border is secure. He opposed as unfair an "amnesty" provision— blocked by Republicans in the Senate this week—under which some people brought into the country illegally when they were children could eventually apply for citizenship.

In the debate, Mr. Rubio said Arizona's tough anti-illegal immigration law was appropriate for Arizona because the state shared a "massive open border with a country that has an all-out drug war."

He often says the GOP "should be the pro-legal immigration party, not the anti-illegal immigration party," and that he hopes to improve the party's tone. "You have to have a legal immigration system that works, and I'm not sure that's been a priority for Republicans in the past," Mr. Rubio said.

"These are reasonable immigration positions," Mr. Rubio said in an interview. "I'm not advocating harsh measures. I'm advocating that the law be followed." Once the border is shown to be secure, he said, he favored the creation of a "modernized legal immigration system" that would include a guest worker program.


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