Immigration: The Next Mountain To Climb?

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Supporters of immigration overhaul are rallying on the National Mall in hopes their cause will be the next Congressional battle. They want a comprehensive rewrite of the immigration laws that would provide a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country. But the politics of the immigration issue are complicated for both parties.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Supporters of immigration reform are in Washington today for a big rally. They want to pressure President Obama and Congress to move forward with a comprehensive immigration bill, one that provides a path to citizenship for the 11 or so million illegal immigrants currently in the country. But as NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, the politics of immigration and the issue are complicated for both parties.

MARA LIASSON: Here's what Ali Nourani(ph), one of the organizers of today's rally, says his movement wants.

Mr. ALI NOURANI: As a campaign, our overall demands for 2010 are the following: number one, good comprehensive immigration reform legislation that ensures undocumented immigrants can work toward citizenship. Second, in 2010, we want to see presidential leadership. Third, we want to see bipartisan support.

LIASSON: So far, there's barely been a down payment on those demands. On Thursday, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham did unveil the outline of a comprehensive bill, and the president called it a basis for moving forward. But the prospects for a bill this year are doubtful because there's already so much legislation backed up in the congressional pipeline.

Simon Rosenberg, who runs a Democratic think-tank involved with the immigration issue, says even if it doesn't get done this year, it's politically imperative for the president to pass it before 2012.

Mr. SIMON ROSENBERG: I think President Obama has to, on this issue of immigration reform, keep his promise. He promised that he'd get it done. He's going to need that arrow in his quiver when he runs for reelection in 2012.

LIASSON: The president says he needs Republican support to pass an immigration bill. So far, he has just one Republican, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham wants more attention for this issue from the president. After he met with Mr. Obama at the White House last week, he went on ABC television and blasted the White House claim that the president's support for immigration legislation has been unwavering.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): This idea that the president's been unwavering on immigration doesn't really pass the smell test. Unwavering is sending two cabinet members over to the House and the Senate two hours a day for two months with dozens of senators trying to write a bill. But this idea that this administration's been unwavering on immigration reform is just political spin and the people at the really ought to know that.

LIASSON: But if the White House needs to be more involved for an immigration bill to succeed, Graham himself must find more Republican support, and that will be hard because for his party immigration is an intensely decisive issue.

Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report says the national Republican leadership and its allies, like the Chamber of Commerce, may see a need for comprehensive reform, but their grassroots conservative base is still dead set against any paths to legalization for undocumented aliens. There are divisions inside the Democratic Party, too, says Rothenberg, but not as deep as the inside the GOP.

Mr. STU ROTHENBERG (The Rothenberg Political Report): The Republicans, the grassroots close-the-border folks are so emotional about this that they often sound intolerant and mean spirited, sometimes it seems as though there's a racial angle. And purely from a political point of view, tossing immigration in the mix may be a way of suckering Republicans to making a mistake.

LIASSON: A mistake like the one Republicans made in 2007 when they blocked George W. Bush's immigration bill. That led to Republicans losing huge chunks of the Hispanic vote to the Democrats in 2008. Still, the complicated politics of immigration might actually lead to bipartisan action because, says Simon Rosenberg, Democrats need to deliver on the promise to Hispanics, the fastest growing voting block in the country, and...

Mr. ROSENBERG: It's in the interest of the Republican Party because their alienation of Latino voters may keep them away from the presidency for 30 or 40 years. They're going to have to sue for peace with the Latino community and there's no better way to do it than by working with the Democrats to pass comprehensive immigration reform. So, I think this is a rare issue that's really in the interest of both parties to get done.

LIASSON: And if the dust every settles on the health care debate, immigration just might be the next big battleground in Washington, whether it happens this year or next.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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