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Immigration Moves Eyed

House Democrats Ponder an Election-Year Bill

House Democrats are crafting scaled-down immigration reform legislation despite the political minefields that surround the issue, with Hispanic Members seeking five-year visas for illegal immigrants who pay fines and pass criminal background checks.

Immigration reform had been left for dead after last year’s Senate train wreck, but pressures for at least stopgap immigration legislation have bubbled up within the Democratic Caucus.

It’s unclear if the behind-the-scenes discussions will actually result in a bill coming to the floor, but Democrats say drafts of legislation already have been written and are being vetted behind the scenes.

“There is the formation of a consensus,” said Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who said he’s seen a draft bill. “We’re looking at some kind of a compromise. It’s still comprehensive in nature but not to the extent we would like.”

Baca said the prospects for a compromise package were discussed in high-level meetings Wednesday that included Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law. Baca said the emerging legislation did not have the broader reforms included in last year’s failed Senate immigration overhaul or in earlier measures backed by Hispanics, such as the DREAM Act.

But Baca said the key piece for Hispanics is a five-year visa for illegal immigrants who can prove they have a job. The visa is well short of past bills that would grant permanent legal status, which critics decried as “amnesty.”

“There is no path towards citizenship,” Baca said. “There are still fines and criminal background checks and you have to pay back taxes. This is what the taxpayers want.”

Baca said Democrats still are trying to work out exactly how the new visas would work or be enforced.

Baca said there also would be an expansion of visas for technical, temporary and agricultural workers — measures strongly backed by businesses and many Republicans.

But whether House leaders will actually put immigration on the floor with such a controversial provision as visas for illegal immigrants in an election year remains an open question.

Just last month at a Jan. 25 press conference, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted nothing would happen this year on immigration, blaming the president for failing to get enough Republican support last year.

“I don’t think we’ll get anything done this year,” Reid said at a National Press Club event with Pelosi. “We have the presidential election, we have a number of very important House and Senate races, and our time is really squeezed.”

Pelosi also sounded a pessimistic note at the press conference. “If it isn’t going to happen in the Senate, it’s not going to happen. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to happen, and we have to continue to work together because there are too many aspects of our economy, if we’re just talking pragmatically, that depend on a comprehensive immigration reform.”

Emanuel said Thursday at a press conference that House Democrats are looking to address both the issues of legal and illegal immigration without waiting on the Senate, although he did not discuss specifics.

“There are things that are happening in our respective communities and districts around the country and businesses that we have to address and we can’t wait for the Senate,” he said.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said Republican support will be key. “We think there’s a bipartisan desire to do something on immigration that deals with our sovereign right to regulate our borders, to deal with the workplace, and to deal with the 10 million to 12 million people who are here, many of whom don’t deserve to stay, many of whom have earned a chance, if we require them to learn English and abide by all of our laws. But we have to have some bipartisan support.”

Lofgren confirmed Thursday that she is in negotiations over new legislation, but she declined to discuss the details of the new bill, other than to say, “It’s not comprehensive immigration reform.” Lofgren added that she is reaching out to Republicans on the issue and hopes to reach a compromise.

Hispanics have resisted expanding visas sought by businesses unless broader immigration issues are addressed.

The immigration issue also could be affected by the emergence of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) as the Republican frontrunner for president, given his support for last year’s failed immigration deal. That appeared to offer just a sliver of daylight to the issue.

A re-emergence of immigration in the coming months would put McCain in a politically awkward position, as he has been seeking to repair ties to conservatives who despise his past support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and yet he will be looking ahead to a general election in which the Hispanic vote could prove critical.

“It depends on which John McCain steps forward,” Becerra said of whether McCain’s emergence will help move the issue.

Pelosi’s office also highlighted the bipartisan angle.

“The Democratic Caucus is continuing to discuss a wide variety of immigration issues, but long-term immigration reform must be comprehensive and bipartisan,” said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami.

But even Republicans who have backed past bipartisan reform efforts are not optimistic anything will happen this election year. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the co-author of comprehensive legislation backed by Hispanics last year, said he doesn’t see anything happening beyond some tweaking of the level of work visas until the next Congress.

A House GOP leadership aide also dismissed the idea that such legislation would move.

Even if Democratic leaders wanted to ignore the issue wholesale until after the elections, they may not be able to, given the pressure bubbling up within the party. In addition to Hispanics, leaders face pressure from more conservative Democrats who back a package of enforcement measures sponsored by Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.).

“A lot of Members in more conservative districts want to be able to cast a vote they can run on,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who supports the Shuler legislation. But, Davis asserted, action on that measure should not preclude other legislation from moving ahead.

Democratic leaders could conceivably face a discharge petition on the issue, although any enforcement-only measure would be sure to invite a revolt by Hispanics.

Baca said the legislation under consideration could have some enforcement measures, adding that too much could bog it down.

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.

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