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Arizona’s tough new immigration law swiftly reconfigured the national political landscape in an already high-octane election year. It creates peril for Democrats and Republicans on a divisive issue with implications for national security, states rights and race.
Both parties are trying to figure out the next step, mindful not to enflame their electoral base or alienate independents over the estimated 12 million people living in the United States illegally. The last immigration debate — in 2007, it exposed divisions within each party — remains fresh in lawmakers’ minds.
It’s almost certain that neither Republicans nor Democrats wanted to have a fight over such a volatile issue just six months before congressional elections that will determine the balance of power in Washington.
Immigration touches every rung of American politics, from national security issues, like border control and terrorist profiling, to domestic affairs like education and health care. American cultural issues like race, class and language also are in play. And every level of government, from federal agencies in Washington to city councils in small communities, is trying to deal with immigration issues.
That means businesses, labor unions, religious groups and immigrant advocacy organizations all have a stake in the issue — and all are likely to hold candidates accountable for their positions this fall.
Republicans who have tried to make inroads with the fast-growing Hispanic population are wary of being portrayed as xenophobic. Democrats fear the characterization that they are weak on national security.
“This really sort of throws down the gauntlet for both parties,” said Catherine Lee, a Rutgers University sociology professor focused on immigration reform politics. She said it’s too early to say which party will benefit from immigration reform being out front. “That will depend on how the parties handle the issue and frame the debate going forward.”
Already, immigration is emerging as a major issue in a slew of Republican primaries, with House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates like Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer having to choose between a hard-line approach and a more middle-of-the-road solution. The GOP also now faces the sensitive task of figuring out how to appeal to its conservative base and libertarian-leaning tea party activists without further turning off Hispanics and other swing voters.
Brewer, in the midst of a tough Republican primary battle, signed a law requiring police to question people about their status if there’s reason to suspect they’re in the country illegally.
President Barack Obama, a Democrat, immediately instructed the Justice Department to examine the law he said threatens to “undermine basic notions of fairness” and pressed anew for immigration legislation, saying, “If we continue to fail to act at a federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts opening up around the country.”
Protests erupted overnight and the political battle lines were quickly drawn.
Conservatives applauded the measure as necessary to stop a flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico. Liberals derided it as a threat to civil rights. The Catholic cardinal in Los Angeles compared the law’s rules to Nazism.
Since Brewer signed the measure from Arizona’s GOP-controlled legislature, Republicans and Democrats in Washington have largely focused on the process of taking up immigration reform and shied away from talking substance.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in a tough re-election fight in Hispanic-heavy Nevada, swiftly renewed his promise to pursue immigration legislation even as the Senate works on measures on financial regulatory reform and climate change. That prompted GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who backs comprehensive immigration reform, to threaten to withhold his support for the climate bill if Senate Democrats opt to deal first with immigration.
“We have an enormous number of people who are in this country illegally,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Still, he added, “It’s not a great time to take this issue up in Washington.”
But Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., called the Arizona law “outrageous” and said, “Before this even gets further out of hand, we’ve got to step up and do the job.”
Inroads Republicans made among Hispanics during George W. Bush‘s presidency were erased following the failed 2007 effort to overhaul the immigration system. Bush, a Texan who focused heavily on Hispanics, got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. But Republican John McCain, whose presidential campaign was derailed in part because of his support for comprehensive immigration reform, got only 31 percent four years later.
For their part, Obama and Democrats who control Congress were all but forced by Brewer’s action to bring up immigration legislation sooner than expected. Hispanics will be closely watching to see if Obama delivers on his reform promise; passage could solidify their support for the Democratic Party.
Democrats will have to walk a fine line, appeasing liberals without angering others, including tea party activists and conservatives who put a high premium on states’ rights. And moderate Democrats in vulnerable states and districts will have to take sides, and could well thwart the White House to save their own jobs.
In this month’s Associated Press-GfK poll, 56 percent said immigration was important to them, but that issue ranked behind every other issue, including the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan and the environment. Just one-third of those surveys approved of Obama’s handling of immigration; his standing on that issue has fallen by double digits in the past year.