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Defeat of immigration measure reveals failed White House strategy, advocates say

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 5:48 PM

Whenever Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and other immigrant-rights advocates asked President Obama how a Democratic administration could preside over the greatest number of deportations in any two-year period in the nation's history, Obama's answer was always the same.

Deporting almost 800,000 illegal immigrants might antagonize some Democrats and Latino voters, Obama's skeptical supporters said the president told them, but stepped-up enforcement was the only way to buy credibility with Republicans and generate bipartisan support for an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

On Saturday, that strategy was in ruins after Senate Democrats could muster only 55 votes in support of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a measure that would have created a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Under Senate rules, Democrats needed 60 votes to overcome Republican opposition to the bill. The House of Representatives had passed the measure this month, 216 to 198.

The irony of the DREAM Act's failure is that it had strong bipartisan support at the start of the administration, and advocates thought it could generate momentum for more policy changes.

But as the country's mood shifted on illegal immigration, support among Republicans and some Democratic senators evaporated, with many decrying it as backdoor amnesty for lawbreakers. Even a former co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), voted against it.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who led Republican opposition to the measure, said: "This is an amnesty bill because it provides every possible benefit, including citizenship, to those who are in the country illegally."

Virtually no one thinks immigration overhaul is possible in the next two years, given the views of many members of the incoming Republican majority in the House.

Now many immigrant-rights supporters are second-guessing Obama's efforts to woo Republicans by ramping up deportations.

"It is a strategy which has borne no fruits whatsoever," Gutierrez said. "This administration has unilaterally led the march on enforcement, yet the other side has not given one modicum of compromise."

"If you really want to bring Republicans to the table," he added, "so long as they are getting everything they want, every piece of enforcement, why, why would they come to the table?"

At a recent press briefing, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano denied that the administration had increased deportations to bring Republicans to the bargaining table.

"I don't view it as a quid pro quo," Napolitano said. "We enforce the law because we took an oath to enforce the law."

But a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said that although there was no explicit quid pro quo, the administration had indeed hoped that tougher enforcement could create a new climate in which legislative compromise became easier.

"One of the arguments that gets trotted out regularly is that the government can't do its job," the official said. "We believe the government can do its job, and our work hopefully is evidence of that."

Being tough enough

Latino groups pushed hard for passage of the DREAM Act, mobilizing thousands of students to campaign for the measure across the nation. They went on hunger strikes, conducted prayer vigils, and organized holiday food drives and Thanksgiving dinners with citizens.

The DREAM Act would have given hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants brought to the United States before age 16 a chance to gain legal status if they have been in the country for five years, have graduated from high school, have no criminal record, and attend college or serve in the military for two years.

"I am not asking for just a vote for the DREAM Act today," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who tried, along with Gutierrez, Napolitano, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others, to round up enough Republican votes for passage. "From some of my colleagues, I am asking for much more - I am asking for a vote of political courage."

But the Obama administration miscalculated conservative antipathy on the subject of immigration, said a senior Democratic Hill staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the issue. Even as the administration stepped up deportations, conservatives charged Obama with being too soft on the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

"Short of marching these people naked over the border at the point of a bayonet, there is no such thing as being tough enough" for those who want to target illegal immigrants, the staffer said.

Immigrant-rights advocates think the issue will reverberate through the 2012 elections. Obama will have to persuade Latinos - who turned out for him in record numbers in key states in 2008 - to do so again, despite the lack of progress on legislative initiatives. For Obama to get into trouble, Hispanics don't have to switch sides on Election Day - they just have to stay home, Latino leaders said.

Republicans, meanwhile, have found that they can talk tough on immigration and still appeal to Latino voters by picking conservative Hispanic candidates. That produced three significant Republican victories this year: Marco Rubio captured a Senate seat in Florida, and Susana Martinez won a gubernatorial race in New Mexico, as did Brian Sandoval in Nevada. Rubio is being mentioned by some as a vice presidential pick.

Pain without gain

Ali Noorani, who heads the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant-rights group, said that Obama faces a dilemma going forward. Republicans would now cry foul if the administration eased up on deportations, he said. But Latinos are losing patience with a strategy that has led to pain without gain for their communities.

"The administration is in a pickle of epic proportions," Noorani said. "They are going to feel incredible pressure in the House to increase enforcement, and the record shows they will continue to increase enforcement of a broken immigration system. On the other hand, candidate Obama will need those same Latinos, Asians and other immigrant voters to come out for him in record numbers. How do they square that circle?"

The senior White House official said the administration has no plans to pull back on enforcement just because Republicans are unlikely to support a bipartisan overhaul of immigration laws in the next two years. "In the short term, there is not a lot of evidence [Republicans] will come forward, but our response is not going to be to dismantle immigration enforcement," the official said.

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