Immigration Issues Split Democratic Groups
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
The debate over immigration reform is exposing fissures in both political parties. Republicans are torn, because some support guest worker programs for the undocumented immigrants already in the US, while others are more concerned about border security.
Democrats are more united, but not entirely, as NPR's Mara Liasson reports.
MARA LIASSON reporting:
African Americans are one of the most reliable groups in the Democratic coalition, but they differ from others in the party on immigration. By huge majorities they're in favor of limiting the number of immigrants to the United States.
Ron Walters is a political scientist at the University of Maryland, and he says those attitudes are based on an increasingly difficult economic situation for black Americans.
Professor RON WALTERS (Political Science, University of Maryland): The African American community is anxious right now, and the immigration debate feeds into that. When you look at the fact that you've had this tremendous mobilization on the part of Hispanics, you haven't seen very many African Americans out there. As a matter of fact, you haven't seen many black leaders speaking out, primarily because they know their constituents are not happy about the economic competition, especially for low-wage jobs.
LIASSON: Walters also points to the response of the Congressional Black Caucus to a liberal immigration bill produced by one of its own members, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, of Texas. Only nine of the 43 caucus members supported it.
But David Bositis, who analyzes issues affecting African Americans at the Joint Center for Political Studies, says while immigration does cause tensions beneath the surface of Democratic Party politics, it isn't the kind of division deep enough to drive black voters away from the Democrats.
Mr. DAVID BOSITIS (Senior Research Associate, Joint Center for Political Studies): Even though African Americans tend to be more negative in public opinion polls on immigration than whites do, at the same time, if you ask them without prompting what are their important issues, immigration never shows up.
LIASSON: But there are other divisions on immigration inside the democratic coalition. Pollstress Celinda(ph) Lake says some of them are caused by geography.
Ms. CELINDA LAKE (Poll Taker): You see some of those divisions emerging, in particular between Democrats who are thinking about the growth potential and some border South and Southwestern states where there are really growing Hispanic populations that could be very loyal to Democrats, and the older white and African American Rustbelt Midwest, which is under a lot of pressure on jobs, and where more nationalistic appeals have worked in the past.
And so you see some of those tensions between new Democrats and old Democrats.
LIASSON: Still, says Lake, the majority of Democrats in the House and Senate seem to be comfortably in the middle of this fractious debate, in favor of an immigration bill that combines tougher enforcement policies, a path to legalization, and a guest worker program.
Ms. LAKE: The Republicans are at two poles. We've already compromised to combine elements that's much more appealing to a broader public.
LIASSON: Even so, the President of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeny, yesterday issued a statement opposing the guest worker provisions in the Senate Judiciary Bill as unfair and exploitative.
And on the other end of the political spectrum, 36 democrats, including some members facing difficult reelection campaigns, voted for the much tougher House immigration bill, which was the subject of those big street protests this week. Those three dozen Democrats were worried that in their districts, a vote against tougher enforcement could be politically dangerous.
And, says Lake, just because right now the spotlight is on Republican divisions doesn't mean democrats will always have an easy time threading the needle between immigration enforcement and reform.
Ms. LAKE: I think the danger for Democrats will come if the economy gets even worse. Then I think this balancing that Democrats are doing between being tough and fair is a lot harder. And I think that the worse the economy gets, the more zero sum the dialogue gets and that puts Democrats under pressure.
LIASSON: But for now, democrats are happy to enjoy their uncommon unity on an issue that's tying Republicans in knots. As Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid put it yesterday, I don't think there's 100% support of my caucus for what time of day it is, but, Reid said, that on immigration the majority of Democrats are on the same page.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.