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Democrats Worry Obama’s Immigration Actions Will Lose Votes

Polls and politicians agree that something needs to be done to reform immigration at the federal level, but Democrats can’t seem to agree on the right way forward. The Obama administration’s push for comprehensive reform has so far consisted of a speech decrying the lack of Republican support for legislation and a lawsuit against Arizona’s new immigration law. The law in Arizona seems a direct result of the perceived lack of federal action on immigration.

But that doesn’t mean action — at least on a comprehensive level — is likely to happen this year. That puts Democrats in a bind. With everyone in agreement that something needs to be done but no clear path, Democrats are worried immigration will be a losing election issue this year.

At a meeting of the National Governors Association this weekend, Democrat governors called immigration a “toxic subject” and said the lawsuit against Arizona could lose Democrats votes this November:

“I might have chosen both a different tack and a different time,” said Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. of Colorado, a Democrat who was facing a tough fight for re-election and pulled out of the race earlier this year. “This is an issue that divides us politically, and I’m hopeful that their strategy doesn’t do that in a way that makes it more difficult for candidates to get elected, particularly in the West.” …

Mr. Bredesen said that in Tennessee, where the governor’s race will be tight this year, Democratic candidates were already on the defensive about the federal health care overhaul, and the suit against Arizona further weakened them. In Tennessee, he said, Democratic candidates are already “disavowing” the immigration lawsuit.

“Maybe you do that when you’re strong,” he said of the suit, “and not when there’s an election looming out there.”

Democrats are “strong,” in a sense — they still have majorities in the House and Senate — but they don’t have the congressional clout to pass comprehensive reform. But maybe comprehensive reform isn’t the right idea anyway. That’s what Michael Lind of the New America Foundation argued yesterday in The Washington Post:

First, large-scale reforms give excessive leverage to politicians and groups representing narrow interests. In the health-care battle, holdouts such as Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) enjoyed disproportionate bargaining power precisely because so much was at stake. And during the push for immigration reform during the George W. Bush administration, business interests forced the last-minute addition of a provision for hundreds of thousands of new guest workers — and helped doom the legislation by inspiring the opposition of organized labor.

In such cases, the outcome might have been different if Congress had passed a series of more limited bills, each with different sets of supporters, instead of creating one giant victim that a small group of representatives and senators could take hostage. …

Although stronger enforcement at the border and in the workplace is probably a political necessity before any new attempts at legalizing the status of illegal immigrants can move forward, there are some other pieces to bite off short of a single, all-encompassing reform push. The backlog of green cards for legal immigrants can be cut by issuing cards more rapidly, for example, so that legalizing the status of illegal immigrants later will not seem unfair.

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