Durbin Leads Senate Democrats into Battle on Behalf of Immigrants

Frank Sharry

Three cheers for Senate Democrats.  Even though their efforts to enact comprehensive immigration reform fell short this year, they have not given up.  With Majority Leader Harry Reid’s strong support, Senator Dick Durbin will lead the charge to win passage for the DREAM Act, a targeted measure that will benefit talented immigrant kids who attend college or serve in the military.  At the same time, Senator Dianne Feinstein is fighting tooth and nail to enact AgJOBS, a bill that will stabilize labor markets in the agricultural industry while providing a path to earned citizenship for eligible farm workers.  The Senate Democrats are taking chances to get something done. 

Meanwhile, over in the House of Representatives, no immigration legislation has seen the light of day, and at this point, none is expected.  A story in today’s Washington Post may help to explain why.  Citing a close special election in Massachusetts in which the issue of illegal immigration attracted a considerable amount of attention, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and champion of Democratic prospects for maintaining their House majority in 2008, said, "for the American people, and therefore all of us, [immigration has] emerged as the third rail of American politics," Emanuel said. "And anyone who doesn’t realize that isn’t with the American people."

I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. 

At a press conference today, Senator Durbin spoke with passion about immigrant kids who deserve a break because that is what America at its best is all about.  Meanwhile, in this morning’s newspaper, Rep. Emanuel threw immigrants under the bus because desperate House Republicans are planning to run nasty ads about Democrats and immigration.

We think it might be useful if Rep. Emanuel and others who share his views consider the following history as they evaluate the role of immigration in the nation’s politics.  In 2006, a special election in California-50 to replace the disgraced Duke Cunningham was won by Republican Brian Bilbray.  He and others in the GOP claimed his closer-than-expected victory in a safe Republican district was because he made his opponent, Frances Busby, seem soft on illegal immigration.  (In the week before the election, she did make a huge gaffe by implying that all immigrants—legal or not—should vote for her!)   

The conventional wisdom that took hold following this race was that illegal immigration had arrived as a potent wedge issue that would help the Republicans either limit their losses or even retain control of the House of Representatives.  Then the voters spoke and the conventional wisdom was stood on its head.  Immigration as wedge issue was the dog that did not bark.  Democratic candidates that backed broad and practical reforms overwhelmingly out-performed hard-line Republican candidates.  Meanwhile, there was a dog that did bark: Latino voters made it clear that immigration is a defining issue for the fastest growing group of new voters in the nation, and that those who adopt a hard line will be met with a hard response.  They swung dramatically away from Republicans.

Fast forward to the Congressional race in which Democrat Niki Tsongas beat Republican Jim Ogonowski by a margin of 51-45% in the special election to replace Martin Meehan.  The Washington Post story called it “a shocker” that the race was closer than expected, and that the Republican’s use of immigration as a wedge issue made it so tight.  The challenger painted Tsongas as soft on illegal immigration, especially for her comments the week before the election that immigrants in Massachusetts illegally should be eligible for drivers’ licenses (a practical policy but a political loser – just ask Gray Davis and Elliot Spitzer).  What is buried in the story is that Tsongas received the same percentage of the vote that now-Governor Deval Patrick, a fellow Democrat, won just last year in his rout of his opponent. 

Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom is setting in.  Republicans will wield immigration as a wedge issue and Democrats better watch out. 

We have seen this movie before.  Bilbray barely wins in a Republican district and it’s because of immigration.  Tsongas wins comfortably and “it’s a shocker” because of immigration.  As a result of the Democrats winning the race, Rahm Emanuel declares immigration the new third rail of American politics.  Put us down as unconvinced. 

So, tomorrow on the Senate floor Dick Durbin will stand up and speak up for immigrants. Tomorrow in the House, Democrats will know that speaking up for immigrants could cost you party support.  And the fastest growing group of voters in the nation will ask: which side are House Democrats on?

SOURCE: Statement from Frank Sharry, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, released on Tuesday.

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