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Hispanics Divided Over Immigration Debate

With Senate Unlikely to Pass Bill Before Elections, Disputes Emerge Over Whether to Call It Up at All

Hispanic lawmakers are deeply divided on the question of whether they would be satisfied with the Senate launching a debate on an immigration reform bill — but not passing it — prior to the midterm elections.

The first choice of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus would be a full-bore push to clear a comprehensive immigration reform bill as soon as possible.

But as prospects dimmed for Senate passage of an immigration bill before November, interviews with roughly half of the caucus exposed disagreements on strategy.

Many CHC members see benefits to a Senate debate regardless of whether the chamber actually passes a bill. “You need to draw the line: Who’s trying to do something and who’s trying to block everything?” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said.

He said a Senate debate would allow Democrats to make clear to Hispanic voters that they are on their side and Republicans are not. “Those lines aren’t clear right now,” he said.

But Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) is standing firm that Hispanics will be satisfied with nothing short of passage of a bill this year — a highly unlikely prospect.

“We need to have legislation because we are beginning to see signs of how bad this is going to get, and we can’t accept that,” Serrano said, citing Arizona’s tough new immigration law. “We can’t allow that to happen. We definitely have to have reform.”

[IMGCAP(1)]Still others said a Senate debate could be acceptable, for now, but only if it represented a good-faith effort to pass a bill, rather than just political posturing.

“If the purpose is to fix our broken immigration system, anything helps,” Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) said. “If the purpose is to pontificate, that’s not progress.”

Democratic lawmakers and strategists are acutely aware of the importance of Hispanic voters — an increasingly influential voting bloc with which President Barack Obama made significant gains in 2008. Democrats want to secure long-term support from Hispanics who supported Obama, and many view a debate over immigration reform as a way to do that, particularly given that no Republican has yet signed on to a framework put forth by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

Although the partisan divide in the Senate makes passage less likely, Grijalva said that should not stop the Senate from taking up a bill, in part because the debate would give Democrats an opportunity to highlight Republican opposition to a path to citizenship and other provisions that have broad support in the Latino community.

“Waiting for a miracle Senator to show up to help is debilitating to everyone,” he said. “At the very minimum, let’s have the debate.”

Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) accused Republicans — including Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who pulled his support for trying to tackle immigration legislation when Reid said he might put the issue before climate change — of putting up a “smokescreen” to deny Democrats a victory in an election year.

“Whether it passes or not, the debate is important for us to have,” Baca said, echoing Grijalva’s comments that a Senate debate would solidify Hispanic support for Democrats at an important moment.

Pragmatic Approach

Other CHC members cited more pragmatic reasons for moving forward with Senate debate.

“If they have the debate, and nothing happens, this is one issue where I don’t mind,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), adding that there was “a value to getting some of the preliminary work out of the way to see where everybody’s at.”

That way, Cuellar said, it would be easier to come back to the topic after the midterms, perhaps in a lame-duck session. “There’ll be another window after November, and it’s got to be some time before you get too close to 2012,” Cuellar said.

Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas) went a step further, saying it would be ideal if Democrats could “come back after the elections and try to make something happen” on immigration then. Too many people are looking at the issues from “a campaign perspective” and trying to gain leverage, Rodriguez said.

He said he would support moving forward with a smaller bill, even though a piecemeal approach has been widely criticized by many CHC members and Democratic leaders.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week reaffirmed her commitment to waiting on the Senate before considering House action “because we want to see what it is that they can pass and what we can support.”

For now, the CHC’s most vocal member are holding out hope that a backlash against Arizona’s immigration law — coupled with Reid’s recent renewed interest in moving a bill this year — will give the bill the momentum to make it through the Senate sooner rather than later.

“I still have hope that between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July — a very fitting set of dates in our history — we’ll be able to get a debate on the Senate floor,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said.

But the reality is that the outlook in the Senate remains dim at best, primarily because Schumer’s efforts to find a Republican have yet to pay off — although in an interview with Telemundo on Thursday Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) reiterated his openness to discussing the issue.

Even if a Republican is found to replace Graham, the schedule makes action on the bill unlikely, if not impossible.

Climate change has, despite its own problems, overtaken immigration as the next big legislative fight in the Senate, and with the Judiciary Committee expected to be preoccupied with a Supreme Court confirmation fight, immigration most likely will be pushed to the back burner.

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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