Immigration Logjam May Break with New Congress

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The Democrats' new power in Congress could help the president on immigration. A divided Republican party has held back the president's initiatives on immigration, and the Democrats may be more in line with his thinking.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

While the Democrats' new power in Congress may mean trouble for the Bush administration on some issues, it could help the president on immigration. President Bush has long called for a guest worker program, and yesterday he said he saw common ground on that with Democrats. His main obstacle had been his own party's hard-liners in the House, but a number of them have gone down in defeat.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: For many of those hard-liners, illegal immigration was supposed to be the trump card of the campaign. Their ads blasted Democratic opponents for supporting amnesty. They touted their own votes for a wall along the Mexican border. Some likened illegal immigration to a war more consequential than Iraq. Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg says it all backfired.

Mr. SIMON ROSENBERG (Democratic Strategist): I mean not only did it not work and did they spend tons of money, they've managed to really alienate and anger the fastest growing part of the American electorate, which could cost them for a generation.

LUDDEN: That would be the Hispanic vote. Latinos had been edging towards the GOP in recent elections, but exit polls this week found three-fourths of them backed Democrats. Rosenberg says for all the legislative failures of this past year, the immigration bill that passed the Senate had more bipartisan support than anything else. He sees a big opening.

Mr. ROSENBERG: This certainly seems like one of the easier things we can do, as opposed to fixing Iraq or getting the budget in balance. I think that there's going to be a lot of momentum. And I think as George Bush looks around and says what can I do in my final two years to improve my legacy, passing comprehensive immigration reforms is going to be one of those things.

LUDDEN: Not so fast, says Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants less immigration. If illegal immigration didn't work for Republicans as a campaign issue, Camarota says there's a good reason.

Mr. STEVE CAMAROTA (Center for Immigration Studies): Mainly because the Democrats moved to the Republicans position.

LUDDEN: Camarota points out a lot of Democrats sounded just as tough as their opponents on immigration. If they support large-scale legalization, they sure didn't talk about that.

Mr. CAMAROTA: You can't have run on a kind of enforcement platform and one of the first things that you're asked to do is to have an amnesty for 10 million illegals. If you're one of these new Democrats, that's tough.

LUDDEN: A lot of the newly elected Democrats are from more conservative parts of the country, where things like border security play well. Republican pollster Ed Goeas points out there are already three dozen so-called blue dog Democrats who will be returning to Congress, and they may or may not toe the party line.

Mr. ED GOEAS (CEO, The Tarrance Group): Thirty of the 36 have never served in the majority. They've always been able to vote their conservative leanings and not vote a party line to get a bill passed. If you look at issues like the wall, all but two of the blue dogs voted for the wall.

LUDDEN: There are other divisions. Many African-American Democrats are not keen to legalize a workforce they view as the competition. Still, Goeas thinks there will be public pressure for members of Congress to keep at it on immigration. His surveys find a substantial proportion of voters believe the border wall is not a solution, but a first step. Half or more, depending on party and region, support legalizing foreign workers.

Mr. GOEAS: And it ends up poised in the voters' minds as something that should be top of the agenda to move to next year, because there certainly is more work in their mind that needs to be done.

LUDDEN: It's work that will test the dynamics of the new balance of power in Washington.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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