Democrats are touting immigration issues this month to the dismay of some Republicans, who would just as soon avoid stirring the pot on the divisive issue heading into election season.
Hispanic Heritage Month runs from mid-September to mid-October and has provided the backdrop for a controversial Alabama immigration law and Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s spiraling poll numbers in the Republican presidential primary, as opponents call him soft on illegal immigrants.
The month has also given President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats a forum to trumpet immigration issues and court Latino voters.
In a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called a House Judiciary Committee-passed mandatory employee verification bill, which is unpopular among immigration activists, an “existential threat” and a “death sentence” for American farms.
A day earlier, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus blasted Alabama’s law, which was just upheld in a federal court.
The group’s chairman, Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), called the law’s provision that mandates checking people’s immigration status at routine traffic stops an “abuse of governmental authority” and “textbook-style profiling.”
Obama has been engaging the Latino population this month as well, doing everything from appointing pop singer Shakira to an administration post dealing with Hispanic education issues to announcing an Oct. 12 White House American Latino Heritage Forum with administration officials and Members of Congress.
On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spoke at American University, where she reiterated the administration’s position that Congress is to blame for lack of progress on immigration reform.
“Congress hasn’t acted and states continue to pass a patchwork of their own laws in an attempt to fill the void,” the former Arizona governor said. “Congress needs to take up immigration reform once and for all. We have put forward our ideas and are ready to act quickly and collaboratively to support passage of reforms that make sense.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida, said Democrats are trying to “demagogue” the immigration issue, but he conceded there could be political ramifications if his party does the same.
“Democrats have been dismal on the issue. The problem is, Republicans haven’t been very good either,” he said. “If on our side, if Republicans demagogue it as well, then it will be a problem. … If it becomes, ‘Who can be the toughest on immigration?’ then it creates a problem.”
That problem could be unavoidable: A Harris poll conducted last month found that 90 percent of self-identified Republicans and 91 percent of tea party supporters polled consider “deporting more illegal aliens” a top priority — second only to cutting government spending.
That viewpoint was on full display when Perry was booed by a GOP audience at a Sept. 22 Republican presidential debate for defending his support for granting in-state college tuition to children of illegal immigrants.
Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he suspects Democrats are “trying to use immigration as a wedge to excite immigration advocates” and to deflect criticism that Obama has not succeeded in passing immigration reform.
“He finds himself approaching an election and the enthusiasm for a lot of the people he made these promises to is waning,” the Texas Republican said. “I think we’ll just have to see how this develops, but it would be very hard to do a lot between now and November 2012 on such a controversial topic.”
So far this session, Congressional Republicans have been hesitant to touch the issue. Though committees have held hearings on the subject, House GOP leaders have not brought a single immigration-related bill to the House floor for a vote.
House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith’s (R-Texas) employee verification bill passed the committee, but it is not scheduled for floor consideration as the chamber focuses on economy and jobs, said Laena Fallon, spokeswoman for Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
But the party also does not want to risk alienating Latinos, who now make up about 16 percent of the country’s population, said a Senate GOP aide.
“Very divisive, so why go there?” the aide said. “Immigration splits folks — you couldn’t get folks united on one proposal, so why even try?”
That doesn’t sit well with Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which works to restrict immigration. He said he would like to see Republicans vote on hard-line immigration bills — even if they are only symbolic and would not pass the Senate.
“There seems to be this perceived wisdom that if you try to enforce immigration, you are going to upset the Latino voting base,” he said. “But we would like to see bills that would support positions that we have taken, just get them out there, get people talking about it.”