Monday, April 12, 2010

From Senate Majority Leader, a Promise to Take Up Immigration Overhaul

From Senate Majority Leader, a Promise to Take Up Immigration Overhaul
Published: April 10, 2010

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, told an exuberant crowd at an immigration rally Saturday in Las Vegas that Congress would start work on an immigration overhaul as soon as lawmakers return this week from a recess.

“We’re going to come back, we’re going to have comprehensive immigration reform now,” he said in a speech to more than 6,000 people, mostly immigrants, gathered downtown.

“We need to do this this year,” Mr. Reid said, drawing cheers from the crowd, which included many Latinos. “We cannot wait.”

Mr. Reid surprised immigrants and advocates with his direct commitment to moving forward with legislation on the volatile issue, with the Senate already divided by the passage of a health care overhaul. Also, as a result of Justice John Paul Stevens’s announcement last week that he would retire, the Obama administration and the Senate will have to focus this summer on winning confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee.

The Democratic leader was nearing the end of a week of hard campaigning in his bid for re-election in Nevada, which is facing record unemployment and the nation’s highest foreclosure rate. After seeing small turnouts at several campaign stops, he appeared elated by the boisterous gathering in Las Vegas.

“We’re going to pass immigration reform, just as we passed health care reform,” Mr. Reid said in a five-minute speech. Latino voters, who strongly support an overhaul, were crucial to President Obama’s upset victory in the state in 2008.

The rally was the largest among demonstrations Saturday in seven cities nationwide, with immigrants pressing Congress and the administration to pass an overhaul bill this year.

Organizers said they planned the rallies, on the last weekend before lawmakers return to Washington after the Congressional recess, to follow up a big rally on March 21 on the Washington Mall. They are battling to keep immigration overhaul on Congress’s agenda, even as the political odds have appeared to worsen almost daily.

The demonstrations were tinged by growing criticism of the administration from immigrant groups and labor unions that support the overhaul. They say it has continued to pursue tough enforcement leading to thousands of deportations, but has made no progress on legislation to open a path to legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.

“I’m very unhappy with President Obama because he said this would be the first thing he did when he was elected,” said Rafael Lopez, 21, an immigrant living in Las Vegas. “I’m worried because the Republicans are anti-immigrant,” he said, adding that he feared that Republicans could make important gains in the elections in November.

Mr. Reid told the crowd that he believes he has 56 votes in the Senate in support of the immigration legislation. “We need a handful of Republicans,” he said, calling on immigrant groups to help mobilize support among them for the overhaul.

He outlined legislation that would include border security measures and a temporary guest worker program for future immigrants. To gain legal status, illegal immigrants would face “a penalty and a fine, people will have to work, stay out of trouble, pay taxes, learn English,” he said. “It’s not so bad, is it?” he asked the crowd.

Opponents of such legislation said yesterday that they thought the chances for passage of an overhaul remained slim while the country is facing high unemployment.

“It just doesn’t look very feasible as the next big thing,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, an organization that favors reduced immigration. “I don’t think even Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats are radical enough to go back to their districts and say American workers don’t have priority when it comes to American jobs.” Ms. Pelosi, Democrat of California, is the speaker of the House.

In Chicago, at a rally that drew more than 1,000 people, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, the No. 2 leader in the Senate, echoed Mr. Reid’s promise to try to enact the overhaul this year. Speaking of President Obama’s role in pressing for health care legislation, Mr. Durbin said, “We need that same determination and that same commitment to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year.”

He said he would work to bring Republicans to support the legislation.

Senators Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, have been working on an immigration bill. Mr. Graham said recently that he did not believe there was sufficient support among Republicans to move forward.

“That is our challenge,” Mr. Durbin told the rally in Chicago, “to bring together the Democratic voices as well as good-thinking Republicans to make this a reality of immigration reform. We can do this.”

More than one thousand people also turned out for a rally in Seattle, and there were smaller events in El Paso, New York City, Philadelphia, and Providence, R.I.

In the past week, some immigrant advocates had become openly angry with the Obama administration, saying its enforcement policies had led to thousands of deportations.

The advocates said they were reacting to news reports that agents were working to meet deportation quotas, even after senior immigration officials had said they were no longer guided by such numerical goals.

In several California cities, members of the Service Employees International Union, one of the largest labor organizations supporting immigration overhaul, protested Thursday and Friday in front of immigration agency offices.

Eliseo Medina, an executive vice president of the union, said the group had been expecting Mr. Obama to shift enforcement policy after the high-profile workplace raids of the Bush administration. But Mr. Medina said that thousands of immigrants in the union who do not have work authorization had been fired from jobs in recent months while deportations continued.

“It’s pretty clear that our optimism about a change of policy was misplaced,” Mr. Medina said in an interview. “What they are doing makes no sense, so we are just basically mobilizing to fight back.”

Steve Friess contributed reporting from Las Vegas and William Yardley from Seattle.

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Las Vegas Sun: Hispanic loyalty to Democrats wanes
Inaction on immigration reform has key voting bloc less enthused about election
By J. Patrick Coolican
Sunday, April 11, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Activists gather outside the Lloyd George Federal Building in a protest for immigration reform Saturday, April 10, 2010.

Nevada Democrats have a huge problem this fall.

No, it’s not the bad economy that has voters in a sour, anti-incumbent mood. Or the poor approval numbers of the Reid family, the father-son duo of Harry and Rory who are atop the Democratic ticket as candidates for Senate and governor, respectively. And no, it’s not that Republicans have found their legs with the help of the enthusiastic Tea Party movement.

Those are all bad enough, but they’ve got another problem: Hispanic voters are tired of Democrats not delivering on their promises.

Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist and consultant with the firm Latino Decisions, points to recent polling that should scare the daylights out of Democrats.

“The number of Latinos who say they are enthusiastic about midterm elections is the lowest we’ve ever seen,” said Barreto, whose firm polls extensively among Hispanics. In 2006, 77 percent of Hispanics were excited about voting. In a recent poll, however, just 49 percent were excited.

As Barreto noted, midterm elections usually feature lower turnout, which means victory hinges on energizing the party’s core supporters rather than persuading swing voters.

For Democrats, Hispanics are an important part of that base, especially in Nevada.

President Barack Obama won Nevada Hispanic voters by a 3-1 margin in 2008 while also pushing up their turnout considerably — Hispanic voters comprised 15 percent of the Nevada electorate, compared with 10 percent in 2004, according to exit polling and data compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center.

If they stay home in large numbers, Democrats, including both Reids and Rep. Dina Titus, likely lose.

For Democrats on the dais at Saturday’s big downtown immigration rally, which drew several thousand people, the event was a great way to reach out to that base.

But it was also an awkward affair.

On that key issue for Hispanic voters — comprehensive immigration reform — Democrats haven’t done anything. Obama mentioned it in one sentence in his State of the Union address.

There’s been some theater about taking on immigration this year, with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., establishing a “framework” for legislation. At the rally, Reid reiterated his desire to bring legislation to the floor this year. But the conventional wisdom in Washington — granted, that gives it an even chance of being wrong — is that Congress will do financial regulatory reform and another jobs bill this year, and then head home to campaign.

It’s easy to see why they haven’t gotten around to immigration this year: Congress has had a full plate, and immigration is a divisive issue that will fire up the Republican base.

Still, invited guests at Saturday’s rally were there to pump up Hispanic turnout — but can’t offer up much in return.

“You have a lot of elected officials who have made promises to get it done,” said Michael Flores, a local organizer for Reform Immigration for America. “People in the streets are discouraged.

“We are trying to spur them into action,” he said of the elected officials.

Barreto thinks it would be smart politics for Democrats to take up immigration. It could help Democratic turnout. True, it would animate Republicans, but they’re going to turn out in big numbers anyway, so he thinks it would be a net positive.

On health care, another key issue for Hispanic voters, Democrats again fell short with that bloc. Hispanic activists were disappointed with some provisions of the law, saying it is not progressive enough and doesn’t cover enough of the uninsured.

“It was underwhelming in the Latino community,” Barreto said.

It’s hard not to get a sense that Democrats think they can take this constituency for granted.

They do so at their own peril.

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