Democrats Put Immigration Back on Agenda

Posted August 6, 2010 at 5:24pm

Democrats might prefer to spend the August recess focusing on jobs and the economy — and not on the much thornier issue of immigration reform — as they draw distinctions with the GOP leading up to Election Day.

But with the White House and Arizona officials continuing to spar over the state’s controversial law, and immigration activists still agitating for comprehensive reform, immigration likely will remain a hot issue through the November elections.

And when a $600 million border security bill abruptly passed in the Senate on Thursday night, an issue many Democrats had hoped to put behind them for the year suddenly was front and center again.

While many Democrats are still uncomfortable with the issue this election season, the bill could end up providing them with a concrete example of how they are willing to confront the nation’s immigration challenges.

House Democratic leaders have considered adding it as an agenda item for House action this week as well.

The measure, authored by Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), calls for deploying 1,500 new Border Patrol and immigration agents, as well as increasing funding for unmanned aerial border patrols. The cost of the bill would be offset by raising the fees on foreign corporations that abuse visa programs to bring workers to the U.S. from India and other countries.

A Senate Democratic operative said the border bill makes it easier for Democrats to argue that “we want a comprehensive immigration bill that cracks down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, secures the border, makes those that are here illegally get to the back of the [citizenship] line, and learn English.”

And Schumer on Friday previewed the Democrats’ case. “The bottom line is we’ve heard a lot of talk about controlling the border … over the last year. We’re finally doing something about it,” he said.

Schumer also said he hopes work on comprehensive legislation can continue. “Hopefully colleagues on both sides of the aisle will [now] come together and we can pass comprehensive reform,” he said.

Republicans dismissed those arguments. “It’s laughable on so many levels,” a GOP aide argued. “Their knee-jerk reaction to immigration problems is to figure out how to legalize all the illegal aliens that are already here … and then they offer a couple hundred million dollars to secure, I don’t know what, and they think they’re on top? ”

Indeed, Democrats acknowledge they’re not looking to make much of the issue this summer.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) — one of the Senate’s most vocal champions of comprehensive reform — said the issue was not one Democrats were planning to talk about during the August recess. Rather, Democrats want to keep the focus on jobs and the economy, where they believe they have the upper hand over Republicans.

“What we’re going to spend our time doing is talking about what average families around the kitchen table want to talk about,” Menendez said.

“How do I preserve and or get a job, who’s standing on my side to make those jobs happen here at home versus off-shoring them overseas … who is giving me some relief, who stood with me when I was unemployed versus who tried to keep me without any money for my family, who stands with me in the context of creating an economy that will grow jobs,” are the types of issues Democrats want to focus on, he added.

Menendez said immigration is not at the top of the public’s agenda at the moment — and so it’s not at the top of the Democrats’ agenda.

“The bottom line is if immigration was the No. 1 issue, you know, I may have a great interest in it,” Menendez said. “We’re going to talk about what constituents want to talk about. What constituents want to talk about is their lives, their livelihood, their future.”

Still, some Democrats acknowledge the political reality is that immigration remains a top-tier issue in this year’s elections, and they hope enactment of the border bill will help weaken its political potency.

Meanwhile, House Democratic leaders Friday afternoon were considering whether to bring up the bill during this week’s special session.

“That’s something that we will look at,” said Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who also is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Van Hollen told reporters during a conference call that there were “ongoing discussions” about adding the border security measure to the chamber’s agenda when the House meets Tuesday to attempt to send a $26 billion state aid package to President Barack Obama.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) decided Wednesday to interrupt House Members’ six-week recess for one day to facilitate final action on the state aid bill after Senate Democrats broke a filibuster of the measure with the help of two Maine Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.

Emily Pierce and Kathleen Hunter contributed to this report.