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Democrats May Proceed With Caution on Immigration
Explosive Issue Not A Top Priority For Incoming Leaders

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.

"The question is, will this just be another split-the-baby approach, such as we saw in 1986," said Robert Bonner, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection from 2003 to 2005, "or are we actually going to do something that is going to seriously achieve the objectives of controlling the border?"

At the White House Friday, the Bush administration struck a bipartisan chord, trumpeting both border enforcement and a guest worker initiative. "The President believes a temporary guest worker program, where you will know if you're in or you're out, is going to relieve pressure on the border and also reduce the incentive for people to travel from Central America through Mexico in search of such jobs," said White House spokesman Tony Snow.

Bush supports a proposal by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to allow foreign nationals currently outside the country to work in the United States temporarily. Illegal immigrants now in the country could work too, but only if they pay a $2,000 penalty for breaking the law, pay back taxes, undergo a criminal check, learn English, take civics lessons, go to the back of the employment line and then work six years with no legal problems.

The McCain-Kennedy bill would also strengthen the border and create a computerized system to check the legal status of workers. The Senate bill would authorize spending $400 million to expand a pilot program used by 5,000 employers to cover new hires by more than 8 million U.S. companies within 18 months.

But some experts are skeptical. The non-partisan Migration Policy Institute has said that the pilot system is flawed, will take at least three years to implement, and will fail unless it is made much more accurate. The MPI panel, co-chaired by former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) and former senator Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) also said other steps are needed, such as producing tamper-proof Social Security or other employment ID card based on fingerprints or other unique identifying features.

Others say thousands of immigration investigators are needed to verify legal workers and track down those who remain in the country illegally.

James W. Ziglar, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said if Congress does take up an overhaul, "the recognition that enforcement has to be of equal stature is something that will occur this time, because the lessons learned from the 1986 act are still burning very brightly in the minds of people on both sides of the debate."

Muñoz, a vice president at the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino civil rights group, said Democrats should move carefully ahead with a plan that satisfies both sides.

"This notion that it's dangerous to vote to support comprehensive immigration reform I believe to be false," she said. In Arizona, she said, voters rejected anti-immigration Republicans Randy Graf and Rep. J.D. Hayworth.

But, to show how complicated the issue is, Arizona voters also approved three referenda to make life tougher for illegal immigrants.

Anti-immigration Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who was distraught after the election, believing a guest worker program was inevitable under the Democrats, now says he's changed his mind.

"It seemed to me that it was not going to be as easy for them as I had anticipated or feared," Tancredo said. "They're not putting it out there as their number one, out-of-the-box issue."

The more he thought about the issue, the more cloudy the future seemed.

"I don't know," he said. A temporary guest worker program "could certainly happen. I may be just skipping past the graveyard."

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