Senate Democrats' plan highlights nation's shift to the right on immigration

Immigrant advocates gather in Washington to protest Arizona's controversial new legislation.
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010

As protesters in 80 U.S. cities demanded an overhaul Saturday of the nation's immigration laws, fueled in part by anger over a measure enacted two weeks ago in Arizona, a new proposal by Senate Democrats shows how far the debate has shifted to the right since Congress took up the issue in 2007, advocates on both sides said.

The Democrats' legislative "framework" includes a slew of new immigration enforcement measures aimed at U.S. borders and workplaces. It would further expand the 20,000-member Border Patrol; triple fines against U.S. employers that hire illegal immigrants; and, most controversially, require all American workers -- citizens and non-citizens alike -- to get new Social Security cards linked to their fingerprints to ease work eligibility checks.

The plan's emphasis on "securing the border first" before taking steps to allow many of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States to pay fines and apply for legal status was plainly a gesture to Republicans. Even so, no Republican is supporting it, not even Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has been working with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in bipartisan talks over the issue for months.

The Democrats' shift underscores how, in the struggle between enforcement advocates and legalization backers, the former seem to be gaining, experts said.

Ideas that were hotly contested in ill-fated Senate debates in 2006 and 2007 seem now to be taken for granted, said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "You've seen a lot of movement, and in partisan terms mostly movement on the Democratic side toward Republican positions," he said.

The shift is troubling to labor strategists and immigrant advocates, who for years have seen accepting tougher enforcement as a concession that would allow them to attain their goal of bringing illegal workers and their families out of the shadows. "Why would a conservative vote for something if they are already getting what they want?" said Ali Noorani, a lead organizer of Saturday's national demonstrations to hold President Obama to his 2008 campaign promise to take action.

In an effort to show that political energy remains in that cause, more than 100,000 people turned out from Los Angeles to Phoenix to New York, led by figures including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa and Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony. In Washington, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and 35 others were arrested at the White House gates, as hundreds of people held signs such as, "Don't Kill the American Dream."

But the Senate shift also reflects political reality. High U.S. unemployment, an anti-Washington mood and violence from Mexico's war against drug cartels are feeding the public's frustration, particularly in Arizona, where smuggling-related violence and crimes are on the rise. Referring to the new Arizona law, a toughest-in-the-nation crackdown on illegal immigration, Graham said last week it "shows that the country is moving away from comprehensive [reform], and towards border security."

To both sides, Arizona's law, which makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally, shows what an "enforcement-first" approach might look like.

"If you enforce the law, people will decide to go home," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks reduced immigration and applauded the Arizona plan.

Critics of the law, however, said its enforcement will open a window on the huge social, economic and government costs of removing 11 million people, as well as the constitutional challenges of doing so without racial profiling or expanding police powers. Most Americans do not want that, they say, but firm and fair policies that uphold the law, bolster U.S. workers and the economy, and respect the nation's immigrant heritage.

For now, analysts generally agree with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who declared the Senate plan dead this year, absent a political earthquake. Republicans accuse Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) of rushing the issue to help his uphill fight for reelection in Nevada, where Hispanics make up about 15 percent of voters.

Calling Reid's plan a "politically-motivated 'conceptual paper,' " Graham and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said it poisoned the well for bipartisan talks. They questioned why border security measures weren't funded immediately, and why it would not seek to end "chain migration" by restricting family reunification policies that allow close relatives of permanent residents to immigrate.

Advocates say Democrats continue to court centrist Republicans such as Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.).

Meanwhile, Republicans such as Graham and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who have spoken out against Arizona's law, also suggest the issue isn't going away. Securing the border now, Graham said, could give him credibility to advance a bipartisan bill by 2012.

Staff writers Tara Bahrampour and David Montgomery contributed to this report.

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