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Senate Races to Watch for Immigration Policy

Today’s elections will almost certainly make it harder for Congress to push through progressive agenda items such as comprehensive immigration reform. Although

Elisa Mueller
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Nov 02, 2010

Today’s elections will almost certainly make it harder for Congress to push through progressive agenda items such as comprehensive immigration reform. Although a lot of the changes will be broad — more Republicans will mean more arguments for border security and enforcement and less support for paths to legalization — there are some specific races that could have a major impact on how the Senate will deal with immigration.

All of the races listed below could go either way, but it’s worth speculating on where the election could have an effect on immigration policy:

Majority leader: The Senate race between Sen. Harry Reid (D) and Sharron Angle (R) could open up the position of majority leader, which Reid currently holds. It’s unlikely Republicans will take over a majority of the Senate, but losing Reid would put another Democrat in charge of the push for immigration legislation. Luckily for reform supporters, both of the senators likely to take over as majority leader if Reid loses are equally strong supporters of immigration reform as Reid — perhaps even stronger.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), currently second in command, is the chief sponsor of the DREAM Act, which would provide legal residency states to some undocumented students and military service members, and supports comprehensive immigration reform. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is considered the favorite to take over as majority leader because of his past success as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He also supports comprehensive immigration reform, and wrote a blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform this spring with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

Immigration subcommittee: Schumer heads the Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, which will remain in the hands of Democrats unless Republicans take over a majority of the Senate. The committee could see some shifting if the current members lose their seats, but most who are up for re-election have comfortable leads. Schumer looks certain to win against Republican challenger Jay Townsend, while Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) looks like he’ll be safe against Republican candidate Len Britton and his five other challengers. The other Democrats on the committee — Durbin, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse — aren’t up for re-election this year.

On the Republican side, only Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is up for re-election. He is favored to win over Democratic challenger Roxanne Conlin. The other GOP members of the subcommittee — Texas Sen. John Cornyn, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions — aren’t up for re-election. In the very unlikely event that Republicans win control of the Senate, Cornyn would be the chairman of the subcommittee on immigration.

Other immigration-related races: In the Senate especially, every member’s views on a given issue are important for passing legislation. A few races between pro- and anti-immigration reform candidates could make the difference for passing comprehensive immigration reform or, in lieu of that, smaller-scale legislation such as AgJOBS to create paths to legalization for some farm workers.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) faces a challenge from Republican Carly Fiorina, who supports the DREAM Act and reform of the guest worker system but argues against “amnesty” for illegal immigrants — the derisive term used by conservatives to refer to efforts to allow some undocumented immigrants already in the United States to earn legal status. Boxer, on the other hand, has been a consistent supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, arguing Congress should pass a bill increasing border security and enforcement efforts while also allowing some illegal immigrants in the country to remain here legally.

In New York, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who was appointed to Hillary Clinton’s old seat, is favored to win over Republican Joseph J. DioGuardi. Gillibrand was originally considered an anti-immigrant pick for the Senate seat, but has since shifted to a pro-immigration reform view and advocates legislation that would allow some undocumented immigrants in the country to become legal residents.

Open seats could see the addition of some immigration hardliners. Rand Paul, a Republican running for Senate in Kentucky against Democrat Jack Conway, supports state-led solutions to illegal immigration such as Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law. He also wants to built an electric fence between the United States and Mexico and move overseas military bases back to the country to man the border. Conway, on the other hand, said he supports more border agents but also paths to legalization. “Let’s take people out of the shadows and turn them into taxpayers,” he said during a debate.

Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias are facing off for Obama’s former seat in Illinois. If Giannoulias wins, the Democrats will have a nearly sure vote for comprehensive immigration reform as well as the DREAM Act. But Kirk has said that the Senate should tackle border security first, and that he would vote against the DREAM Act and other immigration reform.

Elisa Mueller | Elisa Mueller was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to a mother who taught reading and a father who taught film. As a result, she spent an excessive amount of her childhood reading books and watching movies. She went to the University of Kansas for college, where she earned bachelor's degrees in English and journalism. She moved to New York City and worked for Entertainment Weekly magazine for ten years, visiting film sets all over the world.


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