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Squandered Opportunity? Democrats Put Off Immigration

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The fiery backlash against the recent Arizona law energized the fight for immigration reform overnight, propelling Democrats to forcefully cast the issue as a top domestic priority. But not long after invigorating advocates of a nationwide overhaul did party leaders furtively pour cold water on prospects of completing the task this year.

President Obama and Democratic leaders pounced on the law in anticipation of its enactment two Fridays ago, elevating their rhetoric following Gov. Jan Brewer's signature and strongly signaling an intention to prioritize immigration after financial reform, which has already been approved by the House and is approaching its climax in the Senate.

But soon after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said they would move on immigration ahead of energy and climate change legislation, Obama stealthily dampened its hopes, telling reporters in a rare statement aboard Air Force One that there "may not be an appetite" for Congress to tackle the issue this year.

Coalescing around this message while rhetorically embracing the need for an immigration overhaul, Pelosi declared: "If there is going to be any movement in this regard, it will require presidential leadership, as well as an appetite," to push forward. Reid followed suit, demoting immigration back below climate change. This may be a squandered opportunity to push the issue at its hottest moment.

The Arizona law, far from crystallizing as a pure party-line issue, has invited substantive and strategic criticisms from numerous Republicans, too. While the silence of the GOP leadership may partly reflect acquiescence to the xenophobic elements of the conservative base, some elected Republicans (and acute strategists like Karl Rove) know that the law's undeniable snub to Hispanics -- America's fastest-growing demographic -- will come back to haunt the party.

Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake speculates that Democrats are cynically capitalizing on the Arizona law to galvanize Latino voters -- who strongly support reform -- ahead of this year's perilous midterm elections. The party's "symbolic gestures" and summons for bipartisanship, she posits, are an attempt to obscure its own reticence to tackle such an explosive issue for fear of blowback from other constituencies in November.

In a fairly lackluster press conference on Thursday, Democrats unveiled a framework for nationwide reforms, which considerably beefs up border enforcement and clamps down on illegal immigration while offering a long, arduous pathway to citizenship for presently undocumented immigrants. The blueprint also eases the gridlock on family- and employment-based immigration, eliminating some obstacles for close relatives of US citizens and skilled foreign workers to attain visas and permanent residency.

Anger towards the federal government's failure to fix the immigration system is certainly legitimate, as is the ire against those who break the law. Illegal immigration is a serious problem. But underscoring the more overarching anti-immigrant rage -- directed also against legal minorities, like the Arizona law -- is a forceful nativist backlash, presumably driven by America's changing demographics as the growth of minorities outpaces that of whites. The first black president reflects the nation's paradigm shift into a minority-majority country, which is fueling anxieties, particularly among older traditionalists.

The optics of both immigration and energy today couldn't be more conducive to reform, as the massive nationwide immigration rallies in response to the Arizona law and the catastrophic BP oil spill provide the perfect impetus for Democrats to galvanize their base. But after a politically treacherous year fighting for health care reform -- and a series of obstacles remaining on the financial reform front -- it's likely Congress will postpone deliberation on both issues until next year.

This short-term solution presents greater long-term problems. Democrats, being the party that controls the presidency and large congressional majorities during a recession, are poised to lose many seats in both chambers this November. And the rising influence of the tea partiers, essentially the GOP's far-right flank that's determined to forbid Democrats to govern, foreshadows potentially unprecedented gridlock in Washington come January.

The draft proposal put forth by Democrats, similar in many respects to George W Bush's failed 2007 effort, includes various Republican ideas and reflects pragmatic interest in overhauling the system. But success this time around will require real leadership from the White House -- the polarized factions won't coalesce around any kind of solution without persistent articulation of the need to amend the status quo.

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