Looking to position themselves ahead of the November elections, Senate Democrats on Tuesday took on the issue of immigration — promising to overturn a far-reaching Arizona law and refusing to eliminate a provision in the Violence Against Women Act that includes protection for some illegal immigrants.
In an apparent attempt to piggyback on today’s Supreme Court oral arguments on the Arizona law, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, held a hearing and promised to introduce legislation to block the state from enforcing the act, known as Arizona S.B. 1070, if the Supreme Court upholds it.
But Republicans accused Schumer and Democrats of pandering to Hispanic voters and boycotted the hearing.
Schumer, who is also head of the Senate Democrats policy and communications operations, is an ardent critic of the law, which requires Arizona law enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone they stop or suspect of being an illegal immigrant.
“Congress has already clearly and repeatedly indicated its intent to pre-empt states from creating their own immigration enforcement regimes, which is why I believe S.B. 1070 and laws like it are unconstitutional,” he said.
Schumer said his bill would “re-emphasize that state officials can only engage in the detection, apprehension and detention of unlawfully present individuals if they are doing so pursuant to an explicit agreement with the federal government and are being supervised and trained by federal officials.”
Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the only other Senator to attend the hearing, said the Arizona law encourages racial profiling and discourages the undocumented community from working with law enforcement.
“The Arizona immigration law will simply deter undocumented immigrants from being part of the community and cooperating with law enforcement when necessary,” Durbin said.
But Republicans said the hearing was a media circus designed to cast the GOP in a negative light.
“I will not participate in today’s hearing because it is strictly political theater,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a member of the subcommittee.
“The timing of the hearing just one day ahead of the Supreme Court’s review of the law suggests that its purpose is either to influence the court’s decision or to garner publicity,” Kyl continued. “The failure of Senate Democrats to seek input from any members of the Arizona Congressional delegation before scheduling the hearing further demonstrates that it is intended to be more of a spectacle than a forum for learning anything useful for policymaking. The Supreme Court will decide the case on its merits and that is how it should be.”
Republicans, including presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, have been walking a fine line as they seek to show their base they are tough on illegal immigration but not to the point that it alienates Latino voters in the general election — particularly in swing states such as Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado.
Democrats have struggled to make good on campaign promises to tackle immigration reform and other bills, such as the DREAM Act, which would help the children of illegal immigrants.
Despite criticism from some interest groups, the Arizona law has been praised by most of the GOP presidential candidates, including Romney, who called it a “model” for the nation.
Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, said border states have been left little choice except to take on the issue, given that there has been no legislative action to alleviate the problem.
“In my state, when you say ‘mañana,’ that means always tomorrow. That seems to be the president’s attitude, and the Senate Democrats’ attitude when it comes to fixing our broken immigration system,” Cornyn said.
Even as Schumer convened his hearing Tuesday morning, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced on the Senate floor that he would not bow to Republican demands to “weaken” the Violence Against Women Act, which is slated for a vote on the floor this week.
The Senate reauthorization of the act includes a provision that would give battered, undocumented women temporary visas to encourage them to come forward.
The current cap for U visas is 10,000, but that could be increased to 15,000 by using visas unclaimed since 2006.
But Republicans have expressed concern about that provision, along with language extending the bill’s protections to gays and lesbians.
Sixty Senators support the bill, including eight Republicans, and it is expected to pass.
Durbin said Democratic leaders had discussed the possibility of dropping the immigrant provision in order to avoid immigration-related amendments that could be offered on the bill.
“Briefly, someone said, ‘If you leave that in, other things can happen,’” Durbin said Tuesday. “But everyone to a person in the [Democratic caucus] room said, ‘It has to stay in.’”
Cornyn said Republicans are concerned about the possible misuse of the additional annual temporary visas.
“I know there is some concern about that,” Cornyn said. But he noted that “there is strong bipartisan support” for the bill.
In a Monday op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, Cornyn called out Democrats for what he argues is an attempt to score political points with the bill.
“This is shameful,” Cornyn wrote. “The law was enacted to protect and serve the interests of crime victims, not to help a political party fire up its base.”
His comments come as Democrats and Republicans square off for the votes of women and Latinos.
Polls show Romney trailing President Barack Obama among female voters by clear margins and that Obama has wide edges with Hispanic voters.
Cornyn said he intends to offer an amendment that would help address the massive backlog of untested rape kits and toughen sentencing for some of the worst sex offenders who commit crimes against women and children.
Senate Judiciary ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) want to offer a substitute amendment to address the issues, including extending protections to same-sex couples, that Republicans have with the bill.