Conservative Democrats are starting to feel the heat on immigration back home and have proposed a bipartisan, enforcement-only bill that is ruffling the feathers of the party’s Hispanic Members and causing another headache for House leadership.
Freshman Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) proposed a tough new enforcement-only immigration bill Tuesday with 84 co-sponsors, split nearly evenly between the parties.
Shuler’s proposal essentially extracts a number of enforcement provisions from broader immigration reform bills, but came under immediate fire from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus for failing to include provisions like a guest-worker program and a path to legalization for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Proponents of tougher enforcement, including such groups as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and many of the most vocal anti-illegal-immigration members of the Republican Party, signed on to the bill and praised Shuler for introducing it.
The bill would set up a new verification system for employees to show that they are here legally, which all businesses would have to use within four years.
“Under this bill, we can expect a peaceful self-deportation of hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens a year, immediately bringing relief to overburdened communities and improving wage prospects, particularly for the 23 million less-educated Americans who do not currently have a job,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a group backing tougher enforcement measures.
The bill also would increase the border patrol by 8,000 agents, boost enforcement of immigration laws by state and local authorities and expedite the removal of illegal immigrants.
“Americans are very upset at their government for not taking action, and they have a right to be,” Shuler said. He said the immigration issue is by far the top concern among his constituents, with it outpacing other issues by 6-to-1 in a recent survey.
“I have the ability to reach across the aisle and bring both sides together to reach a commonsense solution,” Shuler said. “People in North Carolina sent me here to be a leader.”
Shuler said he spoke to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) about the bill. “With the support it has, 84 co-sponsors from 26 states, I hope that it gets the opportunity to be voted on on the House floor,” Shuler said.
“We’re looking closely at that,” Hoyer said of the bill Tuesday. “Obviously it has to go through committee, but Congressman Shuler has made a very good effort here trying to put a package together that he hopes will be an effective solution. We’ll have to see what the committee has to say about that.”
A Democratic leadership aide acknowledged that the immigration issue was important but did not sound excited about moving the Shuler bill. “This is an important issue but it needs presidential leadership,” the aide said.
The Shuler proposal may ultimately do more as a chance to provide cover for conservative Democrats like Shuler in tough districts than it will as a practical matter.
But Shuler’s plan raised the ire of Hispanic Democrats, who have been frustrated at the House’s inability to pass immigration legislation.
“I’m always concerned about Democrats imitating Republicans,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.). “Democrats have been running away from some of the most vulnerable workers in this country — the undocumented.”
Gutierrez blamed House Democrats for failing to move immigration bills, which he said left an opening for an “enforcement only” approach.
“The Senate tried twice on comprehensive immigration and twice on the DREAM Act,” Gutierrez said. “The House of Representatives has yet to be heard from. That sends a chilling response to those of us that thought a new majority would do something for immigrants.”
Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, lambasted the proposal. Shuler is “not really dealing with the issue,” Baca said, adding that the North Carolinian should back comprehensive reform that would eventually legalize the 12 million illegal immigrants.
Baca said an enforcement-only approach would not work. “They are not going to leave,” Baca said. “What are you going to do about the people who are here now? You’ll still have people working underground. We’ve got to get people to come out of the shadows.”
Baca likewise said they continue to press House leaders to move a modified comprehensive bill. “We’ve got to address it. It’s not going to disappear.”
Shuler’s work, meanwhile, earned praise from Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.). “This is some of the most impressive work by a freshman I’ve seen down here,” he said. Davis signed on to the bill, arguing that employers and prospective immigrants who play by the rules are put at a disadvantage to those who cheat.
“It’s a very important first step,” Davis said.
He said “the American people are shaking their heads” at proposals like New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s (D) to give illegal immigrants driver’s licenses, which earned measured praise from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
“I didn’t understand Hillary Clinton’s position and I don’t understand Eliot Spitzer’s position,” Davis said.