Obama's immigration plan a 'poison pill' for Congress

Lawmakers have proved reluctant to touch the topic because it can burn them in primary season.

Tom Pennington/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT
Dividing line: A US Border Patrol agent walks along a section of the US-Mexico border fence near Sunland Park, N.M. President Obama's efforts to reform how America treats immigrants who have come to the country illegally could cause problems for members of Congress.

President Obama’s plan to start work on immigration reform – reaffirmed by White House staff this week – launched two sharply different views on how it will impact his domestic agenda.

Supporters applaud Mr. Obama's holistic approach, arguing that all the interrelated issues of the economy, healthcare, and homeland security must be dealt with together. But to others, immigration reform is one of the most divisive issues in American politics – a "poison pill" that could sour the mood in Congress and clip the president's momentum.

By adding it to his "to do" list, Obama is putting lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in a bind, forcing them into votes that can then be wielded against them on the campaign trail.

"Democrats have to worry about offending Latino voters – that would create problems in primaries," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Republicans have to deal with the enforcement-only folks, also in primaries.”

The last bid for comprehensive reform legislation derailed in the Senate in June 2007. Republicans who were willing to support then-President Bush on immigration aren’t as likely to take political risks for a Democratic president.

“If Republicans have learned nothing else, it’s that their primary electorates don’t look kindly on anything that looks like amnesty,” says Mr. Pitney.

The immigration issue poses special problems for each party. Since 2007, elements of the issue have come back as amendments to certain bills working their way through Congress. Members of Congress have called them “poison pills,” because they aim to force legislators to record their votes on divisive issues.

In one instance earlier this year, the Senate voted to kill an amendment supported by groups who want tighter controls on immigration. It would have extended for six years a voluntary, Internet-based program that aims to determine if employees are legally entitled to work in the United States.

Though the amendment failed, the last-minute vote changes and intense discussions in the well of the Senate signaled how tough a call it was for Democrats in conservative states – who may have seen the vote coming back to hurt them in opponents' campaign ads. In the end, seven Democrats voted with a united GOP caucus to back the amendment, which lost narrowly, 50-47.

On the House side, a tax bill included a vote on whether to require the Internal Revenue Service to toughen enforcement against illegal immigrants, including denial of the earned income tax credit. The April 15, 2008, vote split the House, 210 to 210. The Senate never took up the bill.

Immigration is so divisive that opponents of other issues – ranging from annual spending bills to healthcare reform – have tried to bring immigration into the discussion as a way to fracture the support for bills.

“We’ve seen the anti-immigrant forces and even anti-healthcare forces try to move even healthcare into an immigration debate,” says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant advocacy group in Washington.

Groups that favor curbs on immigration counter that this is not simply a tactic; it is the nature of immigration reform.

“Every program will provide yet another opportunity for moderate Democrats, Republicans, and blue dogs [conservative Democrats] to say: You can’t spend this money on illegal aliens,” says Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which favors a harder line on immigrants.

Whether Obama plans to launch a bid for comprehensive immigration reform this year or later, Republicans and opponents are taking the immigration debate to other elements of the president's agenda – setting up early and ongoing tests of the strength of the pro-reform coalition.

“As long as the administration continues to push such an ambitious spending agenda, by definition you raise the eligibility question at every turn," says Mr. Stein of FAIR. “There’s an inherent taxpayer dislike of providing taxpayer funds to people who have no right to be in the country."

But supporters of a comprehensive approach say immigration is an essential element of the president’s overall agenda. “Fixing our immigration system is an important part of addressing our nation's economic, healthcare, and homeland-security challenges,” said Angela Kelley, director of the Immigration Policy Center in Washington.

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