Analysis by William Fisher
Advocates for comprehensive immigration reform are working against time to transform the groundswell of popular support into concrete legislation that Congress can pass this year.
But a wide variety of political and ideological forces have mobilized to ensure that that doesn’t happen.
The outcry surrounding the repressive law passed by Arizona’s legislators and signed by the state’s Republican governor has probably given immigration reformers a gift no amount of money could buy. It has mobilized the entire pro-immigration community and triggered a large, visible, highly vocal, and well-publicized backlash that some polling suggests is beginning to turn some fence-sitters into advocates.
It was this backlash that accelerated efforts by a group of powerful Democratic senators to unveil the outlines of an immigration policy designed to protect US borders while also dealing with the estimated 10-11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally.
A draft version of a comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill summary was made public last week. It was championed by Democratic Senator Harry Reid of Nevada – the Senate Majority Leader -- and his deputy, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, along with Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Bob Menendez of New Jersey.
But no sooner did their outline go public than it became the subject of criticism – and not from the usual suspects. Harsh words came from the Left, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which said it had “serious reservations” about parts of the bill summary that raise “serious civil liberties concerns. “
Specifically, the ACLU is opposed to a provision that would create a biometric national ID card.
“If the biometric national ID card provision of the draft bill becomes law, every worker in America would have to be fingerprinted and a new federal bureaucracy – one that could cost hundreds of billions of dollars – would have to be created to issue cards.”
The draft bill also provides for continuation of the much-criticized Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) 287(g) program that utilizes local police and sheriff’s departments to enforce immigration law in partnership with the federal government.
Earlier this month the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a scathing report on the 287(g) program, saying it lacked direction and was poorly managed. Many local law enforcement authorities have also opposed the program, charging that it diverts scarce personnel resources into activities for which they are not properly trained.
The draft CIR bill summary also describes some immigration detention reforms including a provision that would grant “heightened” detention authority to the government in certain circumstances.
“The Senate CIR summary raises many red flags about encroachments on due process and privacy,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office.
The raw partisan politics of the immigration issue raises further questions about whether it can be a legislative winner this year. Thus far, there has been next to zero support from Republicans. While it is known that a number of prominent Republican lawmakers favor of a robust legislative package, many Republicans are facing primary challenges from their Right, causing some of them to remain silent or support measures they might normally find unacceptable.
For example, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, had long been one of the Senate’s champions of comprehensive immigration reform. But facing an uphill battle for his party’s renomination for another six-year term. McCain has endorsed the Arizona legislation which has caused much of the current ruckus. His Arizona colleague, Republican Sen. John Kyl, has also endorsed the Arizona legislation.
Both contend that Arizona was forced to enact the new law because of the failure of the Federal government to meet it obligations to keep its citizens safe. At week’s end, there was also talk of Texas, another border state, adopting an Arizona-type bill.
Another Republican Senator, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has been working closely with the White House on getting Republican support for immigration legislation. But he has objected to it being considered before the equally controversial climate change issue.
On the other hand, the Senate’s Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, has promised that state’s huge Latino population that he would champion immigration reform this year. Reid is locked in a fierce primary battle with a strong opponent on the Right, and is trailing in the polls.
However, last week Reid told reporters that the climate change bill would probably come before immigration because that legislation had already been drafted.
Even President Barrack Obama is cautious about the prospects for immigration reform this year. He has said it was vital that Congress address the immigration issue before more states adopt Arizona-like laws.
He said that Congress might not have the stomach for another tough battle coming on the heels of the health care debate, and in the face of other battles over climate and financial industry regulatory reforms.
Obama concedes he will need backing from some Republicans, who would not normally be disposed to offering it in a difficult election year.
The new Arizona law gives police the authority to detain people they suspect are illegal immigrants. The White House has been outspoken in its criticism of the Arizona bill as a possible infringement of civil rights. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified to Congress last week that the Department of Justice is planning to review the Arizona law for issues of constitutionality.
Obama said, “I understand the frustrations of the border states,” but said that is why the country needed a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
Meanwhile, on May Day, May 1st, interest groups representing a broad coalition of like-minded immigration advocates participated in dozens of marches, rallies and vigils in major and minor towns across the country. Cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Ann Arbor and Milwaukee held massive events.
In Arizona, more than 25,000 people gathered in a rally-turned-vigil to sing, dance, chant and pray against the new state law, which they described as “anti-American."
On May 1st, in Washington, DC, 35 immigration advocates, including Rep. Luis Gutierrez, were arrested in an act of civil disobedience. They sat on the sidewalk in front of the White House wearing tee shirts that said “Arrest Me Not My Family” and “We are ALL Arizona.”
Carolyn B. Lamm, president of the American Bar Association, said in a statement, “The recently signed immigration law in Arizona runs contrary to the fundamental tenets of our Constitution relative to equal protection and due process. This draconian, and likely unconstitutional, law threatens to reverse nearly 50 years of civil rights advancements in our nation. It is, quite simply put, a law based on prejudice and fear, one whose purpose is to be divisive.”
As Washington’s long, hot Summer approaches, the pro- and anti- armies of advocates, lobbyists, analysts and publicists face one another across the National Mall. Even most Veteran Congress-watchers say this contest is still too close to call.