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Economic Crises Will Take Precedence Over Near-Term Immigration Overhaul
Caroline Fan on November 13, 2008 - 11:35am
Wall Street Journal
NOVEMBER 12, 2008
By JOEL MILLMAN and JUNE KRONHOLZ
The next administration's preoccupation with economic crises will likely prevent immigration advocates from capitalizing on steep losses suffered by their foes in last week's election, delaying any attempt to ease entry for people in the U.S. illegally.
Of the 13 House Republicans who lost their seats on Nov. 4, nine were members of the Immigration Reform Caucus, which has opposed a path to citizenship for the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. A 10th member, Virginia's Virgil Goode, is trailing in a race still too close to call.
In addition, caucus founder Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado is retiring, as is Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, another voice for increased border security and crackdowns on illegal immigration.
Watch an ad from Sen. Elizabeth Dole on her work linking local sheriffs to a federal program targeting illegal immigrants.
Together, these losses shifted the political landscape on a problem that has defied solutions over the past two decades.
The camps break down roughly along these lines: Business and immigrant groups argue for a three-pronged approach that includes legalizing immigrants who overstayed visas or entered the U.S. illegally; enhancing border security; and admitting more workers as the economy needs them. Social conservatives and law-and-order Republicans have argued that the border should be secured before there is any plan to expand immigration.
Many Republican candidates' strong stand against illegal immigrants was read by voters as anti-Latino, and likely hurt incumbents in Florida, Virginia and Colorado. More than 100,000 newly naturalized citizens registered to vote in Florida, where Reps. Tom Feeney and Ric Keller, both members of the immigration-reform caucus, lost their seats.
Immigration wasn't the only issue in any of those races. But in a study to be released Wednesday, the pro-immigration group America's Voice found that of 20 races in which candidates drew sharp distinctions on immigration, hard-line "enforcement only" advocates lost in 18.
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Day laborers crowd the sidewalk outside a Home Depot store in San Diego last month, hoping for work. The slumping U.S. economy may complicate attempts to resolve the nation's immigration debate.
Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina counted on support from law-and-order voters when she ran ads on her work linking local sheriffs to a federal program targeting illegal immigrants. The move backfired after Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell, who was campaigning with Sen. Dole, was quoted in a Charlotte newspaper characterizing Mexican immigrants as "trashy."
Sen. Dole's contest was one of five Senate races in which anti-immigrant candidates lost, America's Voice concluded.
Roy Beck, of the group Numbers USA, disagrees. "Voters didn't punish anybody for taking strong enforcement stands," Mr. Beck wrote. "In most cases, our allies were replaced by challengers who worked hard to convince voters that they were just as tough -- or tougher -- on illegal immigration as the incumbents."
But the defeat of so many caucus members has left immigrant groups optimistic that the Obama administration will reward Hispanic voters for their support with some sort of legalization program.
That doesn't mean a comprehensive immigration overhaul will be a legislative priority, or that its chances of passing are significantly better in Congress, though -- and the president-elect didn't make any promises during the campaign. Mr. Obama will be focused on the economy and tax policy and isn't likely to expend political capital on such a divisive issue, many immigration experts say.
There is also no leader to take up the immigration cause in place of Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is fighting cancer. Sen. John McCain was the lead Republican advocate of revamping immigration laws, but he took intense heat from primary voters for his stand and largely dropped the issue during his presidential campaign.
"Conventional wisdom that amnesty is a done deal is incorrect," says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group opposed to increased immigration.
Immigrant groups have long feared that any stand-alone bill seeking legalization for millions of undocumented residents would fail, and have insisted on legalization being part of a broader immigration bill. "Illegals are so divisive [as a political issue] that the groups know there have to be sweeteners to get an overhaul passed," said Kara Calvert of the Information Technology Industry Council.
But various groups have their own reasons to avoid lumping every immigration issue into an omnibus bill.
High-tech employers may argue for a separate bill that would provide more temporary visas and permanent green cards to engineers, mathematicians and scientists whom they believe would help spur the economy, she added. Agriculture may make the same case, arguing that it needs field workers to prevent production from moving to Mexico.
That could fracture the business-union-immigrant coalition behind bills that failed in 2005 and 2007. Trade unions will likely oppose a temporary-worker plan that was part of both earlier bills -- and a must-have for employers -- because it would affect jobs during a recession.
A hint of Congress's and the administration's intentions could come in March when the E-Verify program, which lets employers electronically verify the status of new workers, expires. The program is a cornerstone of the Bush administration's enforcement policies, but has detractors among civil-libertarian and immigrant groups. The next administration could seek a five-year renewal, a brief extension or let it expire.
Another key will be whether the Obama administration continues workplace raids, which have resulted in the arrest of thousands of illegal workers and criminal prosecution of at least some managers. The Bush administration, after pushing Congress for a legalization program, stepped up the raids after legislation failed.