Digging Immigration Out of Midterm Election Politics

The world of immigration reform can seem, at times, a lot like being stuck in an avalanche—it’s difficult to know which way is up. The closer we get to midterm elections, the more political drift and white noise we have to dig through to discern whether immigration reform is actually going to see the light of day. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the lone Republican co-sponsoring a forthcoming immigration bill with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), buried his head in the snow this week when he threatened to walk away from his own climate bill if immigration legislation moves forward this year. Meanwhile, Arizona’s new immigration enforcement law—which continues to draw national attention—has united Senate Democrats (and a few GOPers) to speak out against the law and provided the political momentum for some Democrats to forge ahead on a comprehensive reform outline. The President, for his part, remains supportive of the forward movement, but is also looking to engage in a more serious, bipartisan discussion on reform.

On Tuesday, Senator Graham left an energy and climate bill meeting with Sens. Kerry (D-MA) and Lieberman (I-CT) demanding that immigration reform be tabled before he agreed to support an energy and climate bill. While some speculate the Graham is providing political cover for Senator John McCain (R-AZ) (who’s battling J.D. Hayworth for his own senate seat in Arizona), Graham claims his reticence is due to a polarized Congress:

“[An immigration bill] dooms everything,” Graham said about Reid’s determination to bring up immigration reform. “It’s not that I’m not capable of doing two things; it’s that the immigration issue has no traction.”

On the other side of the aisle, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) took up the mantle for reform and committed himself to moving reform this year—garnering House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s support in bringing an immigration bill to the floor. Reid also took some heat for prioritizing immigration reform before energy, but cleared up the confusion stating that he wants to do both, but will move on energy first since there’s an actual bill.

Immigration and energy are equally vital to our economic and national security, and we’ve ignored both of them for far too long. I’m committed to doing both this session of Congress.

Senators Reid (D-NV), Schumer (D-NY) and Menendez (D-NJ) released a comprehensive reform outline on Wednesday, as Politico points out, in the hopes of attracting more Republican co-sponsors and to continue the drum beat for reform. The Reid-Schumer-Menendez draft is a rough outline for an immigration bill, Reid said, that can be turned into legislative language. Reid also took the opportunity to warn Republicans that not addressing immigration this year “takes a lot of gall and a lot of being very unreasonable and illogical.” Senators Reid, Durbin (D-IL), Schumer, Leahy (D-VT), Feinstein (D-CA) and Menendez are expected to discuss the draft proposal at a press conference later today.

President Obama called for a comprehensive solution to our immigration problems on a flight back from Iowa this week, calling immigration a “matter of political will” and noting the need for bipartisan support. While it seems like the President wants to wait until after midterms to tackle immigration, he makes it pretty clear that he wants to start the conversation now.

Now, look, we’ve gone through a very tough year, and I’ve been working Congress pretty hard. So I know there may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial issue. Midterms are coming up. So I don’t want us to do something just for the sake of politics that doesn’t solve the problem. I want us to get together, get the best ideas on both sides, work this through, and when it’s ready to go, let’s move. But I think we need to start a process at least to open up a smarter, better discussion than the one that is raging right now.

So where does that leave immigration reform? With national attention turned towards Arizona’s enforcement law and a draft proposal of a bill circulating, reforming our lopsided immigration system is clearly on everyone’s mind. It’s hard to say exactly when an actual immigration bill will be introduced, but President Obama’s comments yesterday—while cautious—read as though he’s serious about reform. While partisan politics are bound to be a part of any major piece of reform legislation—especially in an election year—all signs point to immigration reform as a top legislative priority. We can only hope that partisan politics don’t sully the momentum building around reform—reform our immigration system so desperately needs.

Photo by andytoo.

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