Democrats May Proceed With Caution on Immigration

A Border Patrol officer processes a group caught trying to enter the United States illegally near Yuma, Ariz. Although some immigration opponents lost in last week's congressional elections, the issue remains politically sensitive, and passage of a reform bill is far from certain.
A Border Patrol officer processes a group caught trying to enter the United States illegally near Yuma, Ariz. Although some immigration opponents lost in last week's congressional elections, the issue remains politically sensitive, and passage of a reform bill is far from certain. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Darryl Fears and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 13, 2006

When election results started rolling in Tuesday, Cecilia Muñoz said that she and other immigration advocates were "holding our breath." One by one, Republicans who had fought tooth and nail for stricter immigration laws fell, turning control of Congress over to the Democrats.

By morning, a 700-mile Mexican border fence passed by Republicans in a pre-election gambit had fallen flat with voters. A sharply worded GOP bill that targeted illegal immigrants and spurred marches by millions of Latinos in the spring appeared likely to fade into memory.

"I think this is the best environment we've had on the issue in quite some time," said Cassandra Q. Butts, a senior vice president for the pro-immigration Center for American Progress.

But when it comes to immigration, things are never easy. In the days after the election, Democratic leaders surprised pro-immigration groups by not including the issue on their list of immediate priorities. Experts said the issue is so complicated, so sensitive and so explosive that it could easily blow up in the Democrats' faces and give control of Congress back to Republicans in the next election two years from now. And a number of Democrats who took a hard line on illegal immigration were also elected to Congress.

"It's not without its challenges, for sure," said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "You've got opposition in both parties. You still have restrictionists in the Republican Party. You have Democrats who've been reluctant to move on any kind of worker program."

Butterfield predicted that lobbyists and Democrats have less than a year to move legislation that could put some 12 million illegal immigrants on a path to legal residency, before the looming 2008 elections make a deal politically impossible. And analysts say the fate of President Bush's proposal to create a temporary worker program for 200,000 immigrants is in doubt, with labor's allies in charge.

In recent days, advocates have been burning up the phone lines talking to one another and to try to determine whom House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the presumed speaker of the next Congress, will appoint to key committees, and how the new Democratically controlled Congress will approach the issue.

Major challenges lay ahead. The Mexican border remains a sieve where an estimated 100,000 immigrants sneak into the country every year. Conservatives in the House, and some Democrats, want the border sealed with manpower, fencing and technological gadgets before they will even consider guest workers.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes increased immigration, said Democrats should implement an enforcement program first. Anything else might be political suicide.

"The Democrats need to get their majority reelected in the next two years," Krikorian said. "My sense is that the Democrats have grown up enough to know they can't get reelected trying to get everything they want."

Immigration experts are on the lookout for the kind of compromises that led to the flawed immigration reform laws of 1986 and 1996. In those years, a White House and Congress split between the two parties passed watered-down laws requiring employers to check the legal status of new hires to satisfy businesses and immigration advocates. They also failed to give enforcement agencies the money, staff, technology or practical ability to do the job.

The miscues paved the way for an explosion of illegal immigration.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company