The current turmoil in Arizona is no sudden eruption. Tensions over the issue of illegal immigration have been building for years, aided by the inability of presidents and Congress to enact a comprehensive approach to reform.
Highly emotional to many Americans, illegal immigration is also extremely complicated, revolving around issues of security, labor, and the eventual fate of an estimated 11 million people unlawfully living in the United States.
The failure to reconcile those issues has led to the current face-off between the federal government and the state of Arizona over the enforcement of immigration law.
As things stand now, the situation in Arizona politically amounts to a standoff between a Democratic president whose opposes the law; the Republican governor who signed it; and the state's senior Republican senator (and 2008 presidential nominee) who's flipped on the issue in recent years.
And pressures within both parties have combined to stall and further complicate matters.
Bush's Latino effort
The politics of immigration looked different back in 2000 when Republican George W. Bush campaigned for president using the slogan, “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande.” The then-governor of Texas made outreach to Mexico a visible part of his campaign and exit polls indicated that Bush won 35 percent of Latino voters.
In 2004, “Bush ran an incredible campaign directed at Spanish-speaking Hispanic voters. He had a great ad man, Lionel Sosa, who did gauzy ads about how ‘we share values’ and ‘believe in the American dream,’” said Frank Sharry, a veteran immigration reform champion who is executive director of the advocacy group America’s Voice.
In his re-election campaign, Bush performed even better among Latino voters than he had in 2000, winning 40 percent of them. This helped him secure the electoral votes of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado.
But the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the launch of the Iraq war, and Bush's decision to pursue Social Security reform in 2005 pushed immigration off the agenda until 2006.
Post-9/11 concern about national security also allowed foes of comprehensive reform to deploy the slogan “secure the borders first.”
In 2006, Sen. John McCain helped lead the effort for an overhaul of the law — including a process for illegal immigrants to become legal residents. A bipartisan bill did pass the Senate in 2006 with Bush's support, but House GOP leaders refused to act on it.
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Despite Republican efforts to use an anti-amnesty theme in the 2006 elections, the GOP lost control of both the House and Senate.
Loss of faith
A year later, a bipartisan, comprehensive bill supported by both then-Sen. Obama and McCain failed. One of the Democrats who voted against the bill, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., explained her opposition in terms of a loss of faith in the federal government itself.
“This bill was also supposed to be carried out by the Department of Homeland Security, which already struggles with its current responsibilities and botched, in so many ways, the response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” she said. “There is no way this agency could have shouldered its responsibilities under this bill.”
Frank Sharry believes that the major reason for this 2007 defeat was “the revolt on the right. There was a huge blowback from the (conservative) base, angry about losing the House and the Senate, angry about Bush. They bloodied his nose, and said, ‘This is amnesty, we don’t like it.’”
Labor union allies such as Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., didn’t like the bill’s temporary worker program. "As long as you keep a constant supply of cheap labor coming into this country, you keep downward pressure on wages," he told the Senate.
And “conservative Democrats thought the amnesty charge would stick,” Sharry said.
Since that failed 2007 effort, immigration has often re-surfaced as an issue, in terms of specific benefits and privileges that every voter can understand and many of them oppose.
For example, New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer was forced in late 2007 to withdraw his proposal that would have allowed illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.
Even stalwart liberals rejected the idea.
In a Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., hammered then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., one of his rivals for the nomination, for having said “it makes a lot of sense” to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
“I'm as forthright and progressive on immigration policy as anyone here," Dodd said, "but we're dealing with a serious problem here ... The idea that we're going to extend this privilege here of a driver's license, I think, is troublesome.”
Dream Act debate
In late 2007, the Senate rejected an attempt to pass the Dream Act which would have allow illegal immigrants under age 30 to gain legal status if they attended college or joined the military.
Fairness demanded action, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, arguing that “children should not be penalized for the actions of their parents” who brought them to the United States.
But the bill would have allowed illegal immigrants to become legal residents and qualify for lower in-state tuition rates at state universities.
That persuaded Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D, to vote “no.” Conrad said his constituents told him “Wait a minute; this is more generous than what we’re doing for people who were born in this country.”
The Dream Act remains on the reformers’ to-do list. And Sharry said, “I suspect it has a decent shot for a vote in the Senate this year,” either before Election Day or in a lame-duck session.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rankled some Latino leaders when she said last weekend, “Our Congressional Hispanic Caucus doesn’t want us taking one piece (the Dream Act) that might be appealing and leaving the undocumented behind.”
She said Democratic leaders don’t want to diminish the prospects of passing a comprehensive bill by passing only the Dream Act. “We have to keep the heat on” for a comprehensive bill and “when the time is right, to pass it, and that time, hopefully, will be soon,” she said.
But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said Pelosi’s comment was “disappointing, to say the least” and the Latino and progressive members would vote for the Dream Act if the Senate passed it and the House leadership bought it to the floor.
When will the time be right?
The larger question is when the leadership will try to bring a bill to a vote.
Most congressional Democrats support an overhaul, but left-of-center and progressive Democrats are voicing frustration with the White House and Pelosi for not pushing it to a floor vote this year.
And there's a small group of centrist Senate Democrats such as Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, who have voted to stop reform legislation in the past. Their votes could prove crucial to passage of a bill.
Just last week, five Democratic senators voted for a motion sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to prohibit federal funding of lawsuits designed to invalidate the Arizona law. The five were Baucus, Pryor, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana.
And from the GOP, McCain — who had worked for an overhaul back in 2006 — has taken a significantly tougher stance on the issue. Facing a Senate primary challenge, McCain has taken nothing for granted on the immigration issue, even releasing a television ad calling for the completion of the "danged fence" along the border.
Meantime, in the House, centrist Democrats — mostly from the South and the Midwest — could make it hard for Pelosi to muster a majority to pass comprehensive legislation, particularly if Democrats lose a large number of seats this November, something political handicappers predict.
Enforcing existing laws
The Obama administration has taken action to enforce existing law, for example using a provision called 287(g) to train local police officers to identify illegal immigrants so they can be arrested and deported. And, as a result, deportations have increased.
But progressives and Latinos didn’t vote for Obama just so that there would be more stringent enforcement; they want a sweeping overhaul with a route to legal status for illegal immigrants.
Yet in April Obama signaled wariness.
“It’s a matter of political will,” he told reporters. “Now, look, we’ve gone through a very tough year, and I’ve been working Congress pretty hard. So I know there may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial issue.”
In the 2008 election, Latino voters helped Obama win states such as Colorado that had gone for Bush four years earlier. According to an NBC News analysis of exit poll data, if Latino voters were subtracted from total, both New Mexico and Indiana would have switched from Obama into the McCain column.
“We thought the 2008 election was a game changer,” Sharry said, as 75 percent of Latino immigrant (or first-generation) voters went for Obama, after having split 52 percent for Democrat John Kerry to 48 percent for Bush in 2004.
On Nov. 2, it will be seen how voters react to the current impasse.
In the meantime the focus shifts to the courts: in addition to the legal battles over Arizona’s new law, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments later this year on whether to strike down another Arizona law — one from 2006 which strips firms who employ illegal aliens of their business licenses.
A federal district court judge and a unanimous Ninth Circuit appeals court panel have upheld the law. But the Obama administration opposes the 2006 Arizona law, saying the immigration is the domain of the federal government and that such state laws are preempted.
The debate thus will come full circle before the Supreme Court: can states enforce the law when the federal government seems unable to do so?
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