Recent Democratic Victories May Grease the Wheels for Immigration Reform in Congress

Viewed through the lens of the immigration issue, the overall results of last week’s elections might be called a mixed bag. Republican gubernatorial candidates who promised more hardline immigration stances won races in Virginia and New Jersey.

But two vacant seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (in New York’s 23rd District and California’s 10th District) were picked up by Democrats. As I explain below, these pick-ups should make it just a bit easier for House Democrats to marshal the votes needed to advance on comprehensive immigration reform, which they have promised to do before the end of this year.

The gains couldn’t come at a better time for Democrats eager to move on immigration. Earlier this autumn, 100 House Democrats sent a letter to President Obama reaffirming their commitment to push immigration reform legislation forward. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) has said he will introduce an immigration bill as early as this month.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) has warned immigration reform needs to happen early next year (well ahead of Nov. 2010 mid-term elections) if it is to succeed.

Below are brief sketches of election results and how they may impact immigration policy, at the state or federal level.

-- In California’s 10th District, just east of the San Francisco Bay, California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a progressive Democrat, easily beat out Republican John Harmer.

In upstate New York’s 23rd District, retired Air Force Capt. Bill Owens, a Democrat, beat the upstart conservative candidate Doug Hoffman, who had attracted the support of right-wing talk radio and cable news hosts, and managed to push the Republican Party candidate out of the race.

These two Democratic victories subtly shift the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives, according to Matthew Yglesias:

”... it’s a modest shift to the left of the balance of power in the House. Nancy Pelosi now has an easier time rounding up 218 votes for a health care bill, for example, and each and every Blue Dog [conservative Democrat] has his or her individual leverage over the process reduced."

What Yglesias writes also applies for an immigration bill. Blue Dogs will have less leverage over the shape of any immigration bill, and Pelosi, as House Majority Leader, will have a marginally easier time culling the 218 votes needed for any immigration legislation to pass.

-- Republican Chris Christie’s election as New Jersey governor over incumbent Jon Corzine may slow down or kill efforts underway to grant undocumented immigrant students the right to access in-state tuition at New Jersey colleges. Christie said he is opposed to the plan. Christie may also prove more sympathetic to local elected officials and law enforcement chiefs in New Jersey who want to contract with the Department of Homeland Security to carry out immigration enforcement actions normally undertaken by federal agents. The delegation of immigration enforcement to state and local cops is part of a federal program known as 287g, which is controversial in the Latino community.

-- Republican Bob McDonnell, elected governor in Virginia, has proposed that the 287g program be extended statewide so that Virginia state troopers can carry out immigration enforcement actions. (His opponent Creigh Deeds opposed that proposal.)

If McDonnell pushes ahead with foisting new immigration responsibilities on Virginia state troopers, the move will come with its portion of political risk. The 287g program is popular with many voters who argue it helps speed the deportation of undocumented immigrants who commit crimes. But critics of the program say it diverts law enforcement resources away from primary crime-fighting tasks and sows distrust between Latino communities and law officers. Immigrant and Latino activists also say 287g leads to racial profiling.

Despite his tough stance on illegal immigration, McDonnell went out of his way to attract Latino votes. McDonnell faced an uphill battle, since two-thirds of Virginia Latino voters helped President Obama to his surprise win in the state last year, according to Jennifer Rubin writing in Commentary. Still, while campaigning, McDonnell strove to appear “anti-illegal immigration” instead of “anti-immigrant.”

Sergio Rodriguera Jr., a Latino Republican activist, was quoted in Rubin’s article, saying:

McDonnell has been a good listener, and his Hispanic-outreach events have not been token events with chips and salsa. He understands that Hispanics, like other minorities, want to live the American dream of building a small business and owning their own home.

It will be interesting to look at Virginia’s election returns and see how many Latinos voted for McDonnell. If many did, then McDonnell might indeed be regarded as an example to conservative Republicans who want to attract Latino support in 2010 and beyond (as Rubin argues in her article). But, if McDonnell pushes ahead with his plan to extend 287g statewide and appear tough-as-nails on illegal immigration, he will have to walk a fine line or risk alienating any Latino voters he managed to attract to his candidacy.

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