The Congressional Hispanic Caucus believes it may have found a silver lining to Arizona’s strict new immigration law: that it will energize Latino voters this November and build momentum toward comprehensive immigration reform.
Hispanic lawmakers initially seized on the Arizona law — which makes it a crime to be in the country illegally and empowered local officials to check identification of suspected illegal residents in certain circumstances — to try to spur movement this summer on immigration reform.
Democrats have been working to show they have not shelved the issue for the year. President Barack Obama is slated to meet with CHC members this afternoon at the White House one day after meeting with grass-roots immigration reform advocates. But the fact remains that insufficient support in the Senate for an immigration framework put forth in April by a trio of Democratic Senators has made action before the elections on a comprehensive bill a virtual impossibility.
So CHC members recently have begun to shift their attention to making the most of the opposition that exists to the Arizona law between now and Election Day in the hopes that Hispanic voter angst will translate into support for candidates who back immigration reform.
“I think it’s an opportunity,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), adding that the law “is helping to promote new vigor and new energy” within the Latino community, particularly in fundraising and voter registration drives.
Hispanic voter participation surged during the 2008 presidential campaign, and Democrats, in particular, have been looking for ways to lure back first-time Hispanic voters in 2010. National polling has shown strong support among the general public for the Arizona law. But a statewide survey released May 6 by the National Council of La Raza showed that 70 percent of registered Latino voters in that state strongly opposed the measure, and immigration reform advocates say they believe the potential exists for a significant backlash from Latino voters nationwide.
Hispanic lawmakers and community leaders say signs already are evident that the Arizona law is mobilizing Hispanics leading into the midterm elections.
“The community groups are advocating and organizing, and we’ve seen new energy, precisely because of Arizona, the urgency that Arizona brings,” said Gutierrez, who heads the CHC’s immigration reform efforts.
The message was evident during a CHC press conference last week where Members cheered the fact that Gutierrez’s immigration bill had garnered more than 100 co-sponsors. Several lawmakers used the event to urge Hispanic voters to consider candidates’ positions on immigration reform and make the Arizona law a key factor in determining whom they would support in November.
Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) urged Latinos to insist that candidates who advertise in Spanish make clear where they stand on immigration reform; Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas) said this year’s midterm elections would “be a very important election,” and he encouraged Hispanics to take part.
Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D) predicted that anger within the Hispanic community at his state’s new law would be “manifested at the polling place,” with nationwide repercussions.
“They see the Arizona law as the canary in the cage, that if it happens here it could happen there,” Grijalva said.
Although Gutierrez said last week that he was not ready to give up on an immigration overhaul this year — suggesting September as a possible time frame for Senate floor debate —the odds of garnering 60 votes in the Senate for any kind of comprehensive measure are highly unlikely. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been adamant that the Senate act first on any immigration measure to shield her vulnerable Members from another politically challenging vote. Senate Democrats have quietly floated the idea of breaking off a smaller piece of immigration reform — and perhaps coupling it with some kind of stricter enforcement provisions — but CHC members are insisting that any kind of reform must be far-reaching.
Republicans, meanwhile, have accused Democrats of trying to exploit the Arizona law to paint the GOP as anti-immigrant. Shortly after the law was enacted, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has been a key Senate negotiator on immigration reform in the past, pulled out of efforts to craft a bipartisan bill, accusing Senate Democratic leaders of trying to rush legislation to the floor to score political points ahead of Nov. 2.
Rep. Jeff Flake described immigration reform as “genuinely dead” until after the election and cautioned Democrats against counting on the Arizona law to work in their favor.
“I don’t think either party right now can play this issue with any confidence in the outcome,” the Arizona Republican said, noting the widespread support for Arizona’s law. He described the new law as “wildly popular” both in the state and nationwide. “We just don’t know how this will play out.”
Republicans predict that Obama’s opposition to the Arizona measure could complicate matters for three vulnerable Arizona House Democrats: Gabrielle Giffords, Harry Mitchell and Ann Kirkpatrick.
Flake, who worked with Gutierrez in 2007 to craft a bipartisan immigration bill, said Democrats’ talk of tackling immigration this year was empty rhetoric, adding that it was “too much of a gamble” for the majority to take up such a controversial issue so close to an election. Flake, who has not signed on to Gutierrez’s latest bill because it includes lighter penalties for people already in the country illegally and does not include a robust enough temporary worker program, said he has seen little effort from Democrats this year to reach across the aisle to negotiate on immigration reform.
Grijalva acknowledged that his state’s new law “cuts both ways” in that it could mobilize voters on both sides on the immigration debate.
“But I’ve never seen the Latino community in my state as unified on an issue,” he said.