As Congress stalls on immigration, a backlash brews

Chicago activists marched 50 miles to House Speaker Dennis Hastert's house last weekend to protest congressional inaction over reforming immigration laws and what they say is his anti-immigrant stance. In Phoenix, protesters rallied at the state's Capitol, also to highlight the stalemate in Washington.

Bob Johnson is equally exercised. The structural engineer from Buffalo Grove, Ill., argues the other side of 2006's Great Immigration Debate – that the US needs to send home illegal immigrants and gain better control of its borders – but he says he cannot believe Congress is punting on immigration reform. He's been writing letters to his congressman and senators and says he may not vote in November or he may vote for a third-party or write-in candidate.

The decision by congressional leaders not to try to bridge the big gulf between the House and Senate versions of immigration reform, at least not before the November midterm elections, is touching off a backlash that may deliver a sting to some incumbent lawmakers.

How big the backlash grows may not be known until the day after the election, but it's surfacing in blogs, letters to the editor, and record-low approval ratings for Capitol Hill.

"When you have both Bob Novak and David Broder writing the same column about Congress's failure to act on immigration, you know something is wrong," says Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York, referring to two well-known columnists who typically have very different views. "People on both the right and left will see it as a huge failure" if Congress ends its term without a bill.

Certainly, many Americans are worked up over immigration. The issue sparked huge rallies and marches in the spring, and has been the subject of endless Lou Dobbs reports. Over the summer, House leaders held hearings on immigration all over the country.

But now, with inaction on the Hill, some businesses are mobilizing. A few national groups – like the Associated General Contractors of America – say they'll stop campaign contributions to lawmakers who take hard-line stances on immigration controls, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Texas Produce Association has said people may have to get used to an "outsourced" industry, with more growing done in Mexico, if Congress doesn't produce a bill.

"It's frustrating and troubling and bad for the country" that Congress hasn't taken action, says Ray Prewett, executive vice president of the Texas Vegetable Association. He adds that growers need at least a guest-worker program to enable them to harvest their crops. It angers him that Republicans in the House seem to have hardened in their opposition to compromise.

If the backlash to inaction proves to be a big one, it would probably hit Republican lawmakers, who control both houses of Congress, the hardest, observers say. Democrats hope to use that image of a "do-nothing" Congress under Republican leadership. But Republicans have presumably done the math and are calculating that voters who want a crackdown on illegal immigration would rather have no bill than a bill that offers any version of amnesty.

Still, experts see pitfalls for lawmakers. Congress "failed at crafting a Social Security plan that would sell. The same is true with immigration: It looks as if they can't tie their shoes," says David Mayhew, a political science professor and congressional scholar at Yale University. "This is a great prominent public issue, and it looked as if they were climbing up the hill earlier in the summer, but then couldn't make it and are going to do nothing."

Some activists are responding to the inaction with laws and proposals at the state and local level, mostly aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. Towns like Riverside, N.J., and Arcadia, Wis., have followed the lead of other cities in proposing ordinances that take aim at everything from flying non-US flags to hiring illegal immigrants or restricting the number of people who can live in rental housing. In state legislatures, almost 550 bills concerning immigrants have been introduced this year, and 33 have been enacted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"It's a domino effect," says John Keeley, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates restricting immigration. "Washington's at a stalemate, but the fact is there's large-scale illegal immigration, attendant crime, school overcrowding – all this stuff going on. At the state and local level, they don't have the luxury of filibustering."

Part of the impasse, say observers, has to do with the Republican Party's split stance on the issue.

"If they don't act, this has been their signature priority and the president's signature priority this year, and they look like idiots," says Norman Ornstein, a residential scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and coauthor of "The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track."

Advocates on both sides claim public-opinion majorities, with some pointing to polls showing that between two-thirds and three- quarters of the public favors a combination of enforcement and a path to citizenship. Others note that far more Americans think immigration should be decreased, than increased.

If fact, the security-only voices have been getting stronger, especially in some key districts, and many Republicans maintain they're better off with no bill than with a compromise involving some path to citizenship. And it's still possible that Congress will pass some smaller enforcement bills, increasing the resources for border security, in lieu of comprehensive reform.

But critics say that strategy is shortsighted and ignores the growing numbers of Latino voters.

"It seems to me like they're running an incredible risk," says Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, which favors reform more along the lines of the Senate's version. "It's unbelievable they would beat the drum on this issue for 18 months, have both chambers pass a bill, spend the summer doing hearings, and now say they aren't going to do anything.... They're going to have some 'splainin' to do."

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