07/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bad Options for Immigration Marchers

A tough, nasty Arizona law pulled immigration rights marchers back into the streets of American cities over the weekend, demanding that Washington take action. Given how President Obama and the Democratic leaders in Congress have responded to Arizona's provocation, the marchers might end up wishing they had stayed home.

Two possible outcomes lie ahead: Congress can pass a bill based on the Democratic proposal unveiled late last week by Sen. Charles Schumer, the immigration subcommittee chair. Or, the legislative effort stalls and nothing gets passed this year. Neither is a particularly good scenario for immigrant rights advocates, Latino political leaders and others who share the views of those who marched Saturday.

Pro-immigration forces have been badgering President Obama since his inauguration to fulfill his campaign promise to make comprehensive immigration reform a priority. Now that the first steps towards Congressional action have been taken, they are going to have to keep up the pressure. Obviously, it would be huge setback if an immigration debate ends in stalemate as it did in the Senate in 2006 and 2007.

Each of those debates involved weeks, if not months, of behind the scenes negotiating and then weeks of floor action with a fully committed White House and bipartisan sponsorship from the start. This year the Senate has little time available with a Supreme Court nomination and other matters looming, Obama is totally MIA on this issue compared to George W. Bush, and the two political parties are more at odds than at any time in living memory.

If the battle is joined on Capitol Hill and no legislation emerges, as seems likely, the immigration issue might not come up again until after the 2012 presidential elections. But, Latino politicians and the immigrant rights activists could face another, even more immediate, peril.

Top Democrats, including Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, are barely disguising their hope to use immigration to boost Latino voter turnout in the November election. A stalemate blamed on the Republicans would fit this strategy just fine. But, it is not a great situation for Latino Democrats. They'll have to make good on their claim that the Latino electorate is finally big enough to play kingmaker under the extremely unfavorable circumstances of an off-year election in which their party is likely to take a drubbing.

At best, they'll be able to claim that a Latino mobilization curtailed Democratic losses. That's not exactly the sleeping-giant-awakens narrative that Latino leaders have touted. And, even to get that, they'll have to rally Latinos with the weak argument that Obama and the Congressional Democrats are better than the Republicans on immigration even though they couldn't accomplish anything.

A successful Congressional debate might not be a lot better for those who have the interests of Saturday's marchers at heart. Obama and other top Democrats in Washington had been trying to avoid the immigration issue until Arizona forced them to scramble. Most of the proposal unveiled last Thursday had been drafted over the past several months with the intent of getting Republicans onboard as co-sponsors. That failed, completely, but in the rush to respond to Arizona, Schumer, with Reid at his side, went public with a proposal that makes major concessions. That proposal is now the opening bid for any negotiation.

For example, the Schumer proposal adopts the "enforcement first" logic that Republicans have been promoting for years: A series of specific benchmarks on enforcement--more border controls, more worksite inspectors, more deportation courts--have to be accomplished first before a legalization program can go into effect. That could easily put off legalization for several years. Plus the proposal envisions a zero-tolerance approach to those who run afoul of the immigration system by putting a variety of new sanctions in place.

On the other hand, the Democrats are offering a "provisional visa" for low-skilled workers that could get them permanent residence after six years. And, the proposed legalization program is more generous than many past schemes because it would cover every unauthorized migrant in the country at the time of enactment instead of just those who have been here for a number of years.

But, again, that is the opening bid from liberal Democrats. In order to become law it will have to attract some moderate Democrats and presumably a few Republicans at least, and that will require negotiating towards greater restriction, probably tightening up the provisional visa, limiting the legalization program and even more enforcement.

The Schumer proposal includes a measure that would block Arizona-like laws at the state and local level. That's what Saturday's marchers were seeking, but they might find it comes with a high price. Arizona's provocation did not produce any good options.

Roberto Suro is a professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and is author of "Strangers Among Us: Latino Lives in a Changing America".