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Tensions Already Boiling on Immigration

Health care reform may be on the front burner in Congress, but tensions over immigration reform are bubbling up all around the edges as groups on both sides of the issue accuse each other of bigotry.

An effort to pivot from health care to immigration reform couldn’t be more apparent this week. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports reduced immigration, kicked off a weeklong lobbying effort on Capitol Hill in tandem with 47 conservative radio talk-show hosts holding town halls to address the issue.

Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform countered the effort by holding a prayer vigil Tuesday with speeches from religious leaders and Democratic lawmakers condemning the actions of FAIR.

“There should be no misconceptions: When people like the people who are lobbying today … are coming and targeting immigrants, they make no distinctions between documented and undocumented,— said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a vigil attendee.

“This is about bigotry on one side and humanity on the other. Everything else is simply a pretension,— Polis said.

The Colorado Democrat blasted FAIR for espousing “extremely radical, anti-immigrant positions like ending birthright citizenship, which has long been a building block of our country.— Still, he said he is hopeful that the emotion of the issue will provide momentum for dealing with comprehensive immigration reform.

“Clearly these are issues that can’t be dealt with merely in the context of a health care debate,— Polis said.

Members on the other side of the issue feel equally fired up about their cause. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law ranking member Steve King (R-Iowa) said he was glad FAIR was lobbying and that immigration reform advocates spread hate by accusing their ideological opponents of being racist.

“That’s a version of hate too. If you call someone a racist, that’s hate,— King said. “It’s the people that want to have comprehensive amnesty that are declaring those who simply want to adhere to the rule of the law to be anti-immigrant. That’s false.—

King blamed President Barack Obama for “casting the first stone— in the recent dustup over immigration reform when, during his joint address to Congress last week, he accused some lawmakers of lying about health care reform proposals covering illegal immigrants.

“President Obama set the tone. He stood in our chamber and called a large group of us liars. That should be offensive to every Member of Congress,— King said.

Some Democrats are taking aim at Obama for appearing to chip away at immigrants’ rights to facilitate passage of health care reform.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a leading House proponent of immigration reform, said Obama took a “holier than thou— approach to countering Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) accusation last week that the president was lying about health care reform not covering illegal immigrants.

Specifically, Gutierrez criticized Obama’s recent support for a provision that would make it harder for documented, legal immigrants to access health care plans even if they could pay for it.

“It’s almost like, OK, [Wilson] got his wish. He acted ugly and he got his wish. It’s kind of silly,— Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez called attention to the racial undertones already coloring the immigration debate — an issue that Democratic leaders aren’t aiming to formally take on until later this year or early next year. “It’s always the delicate thing to talk about,— he said.

King said he didn’t think the Senate’s inclusion of that provision in a health care reform proposal meant that Democrats were coming around to support tougher restrictions on immigrants.

Senate Democrats drafting their chamber’s health plan saw “how wrong they were— to not include that provision in the first place, King said. “But they understood not that they were wrong; they understood that they would be punished electorally if they didn’t do it. So it was completely a political decision on their part, not a policy decision.—

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the lone Latino in the Senate, noted the irony of National Hispanic Heritage Month kicking off this week.

“It’s funny,— Menendez told a crowd Monday at a Hispanic public policy conference. “Those voices across the country that are intolerant will come to Washington to make their case as we begin to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.—

Neither Obama nor Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) mentioned immigration reform in their statements honoring National Hispanic Heritage Month, which kicked off Tuesday. In his statement, however, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) vowed to continue his work on “immigration reform to help keep families together.—

Obama and Pelosi will reach out to Latinos tonight, however, when they each give speeches at a gala hosted by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.

Menendez said Congress has to act on comprehensive immigration reform between now and early next year. Otherwise, he said, it likely won’t happen for another four years because of attention turning to the 2010 and 2012 elections.

“I intend to keep the president’s feet to the fire. I intend to be an advocate for what we need to do. … We are not second-class citizens,— the New Jersey Democrat said.

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