Midterm Elections and Immigration from the ILRC

The following is an article from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) about the immigration opportunities posed by the November elections:

The November mid-term election was a repudiation of the Republican majority and a strong protest against the status quo — whatever the status quo voters were registering their opposition to: the war in Iraq, Congressional corruption, the economy, or terrorism.  And this mid-term election was largely focused on national, not local, issues. 

Immigration Not A Wedge Issue: Republican leadership tried, but failed, to make immigration the wedge issue that would ensure their continued control of Congress after aggressively promoting an enforcement-only measure (H.R.4437) as their solution to reforming our broken immigration system. In fact, exit polling as reported by the Washington Post found that fewer than one in three cited immigration as extremely important in influencing their decision, and they only narrowly favored Republican candidates.  About six in 10 voters said that they believe illegal immigrants working in the United States should be offered a chance to apply for legal status.. Democratic candidates won support from 61 percent of those who backed a path to citizenship, according to the poll.

Election Results: As a result of this election, a significant number of candidates were defeated who, given their records, would have supported anti-immigrant and anti-immigration measures in the new 110th Congress that will convene next January. Who were they?  Minuteman Randy Graf (R-AZ — who ran for the seat of retiring Representative Jim Kolbe); J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ), John Hostettler (R-IN — the chair in the 109th Congress of the House Immigration Subcommittee), Chris Chocola (R-IN),  Anne Northup (R-KY), Melissa Hart (R-PA),  Bob Beauprez (R-CO — who lost his race for Governor), Charles Taylor (R-NC), Gil Gutknecht (R-MN), and Richard Pombo (R-CA).  Many of those defeated are members of the so-called Immigration Reform Caucus (headed by Representative Tom Tancredo (R-CO)) whose ranks have been reduced by the results of this mid-term election. 

Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), the third ranking Senate Republican who attacked the victorious Bob Casey (D-PA) over his support for immigration reform, lost his re-election bid by a huge margin. Tom Kean Jr. (R-NJ) lost his race to Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), a strong supporter of immigration reform when he was a Member of the House and as a Senator appointed to fill the seat vacated by former Senator Corzine when he became Governor of New Jersey.  Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) easily defeated challenger Katherine Harris, who attacked the Senator for his position on immigration. And Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) decisively defeated challenger Jan Ting, a former INS official who labeled immigration reform as “amnesty.” However, Senators Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) and Mike DeWine (R-OH) also were defeated: both are supporters of effective and fair immigration reform. It also is important to note that several Democratic candidates for governor (in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Wisconsin) were attacked during their campaigns for supporting “illegal immigration,” yet they all won their races. Nonetheless, many Representatives and Senators who support anti-immigrant and immigration measures will return to the 110th Congress including Representatives Tom Tancredo (R-CO), Steve King (R-ID), John Culberson (R-TX), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Nathan Deal (R-GA), Brian Bilbray (R-CA), and James Sensenbrenner (R-WI — the later NOT as chair of the House Judiciary Committee or any other House Committee), and Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and John Ensign (R-NV). 

Democratic Control of the House: What does this all mean?  The Democrats will control the House in the 110th Congress, with Representative Nancy Pelosi soon to become the first woman Speaker. Democratic control of the House will lead to the selection of new House committee chairs and some new members on these committees. The House Judiciary Committee is especially important: this committee has jurisdiction over many issues that impact immigrants and has been, under Chairman Sensenbrenner (who would have been term-limited out of this chairmanship if the Republicans had prevailed.), the source of many of the negative measures immigration advocates have had to fight over the last years. Democratic control of the House means that Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), who had been next in line under a Republican-lead House, will NOT become the next chair of the House Judiciary Committee.  This is significant because he is a smart and committed anti-immigrant activist. Instead, Representative John Conyers (D-MI), a strong supporter of pro-immigration and immigrant measures, most likely now will chair the Judiciary Committee.

Democratic control of the House also means that the House Republican leadership no longer will control what measures go to the House floor for a vote and the procedures under which these votes are taken.  This also is extremely important.  Equally important is the fact that the Democratic House “tent” is now very broad, with some Democrats including in their platforms immigration proposals that pro-immigrant advocates would oppose. Speaker Pelosi and the new Democratic leadership will have to find ways to accommodate an extremely diverse caucus on immigration and other issues. With the Democratic victory in the House, House Democrats will be jockeying for leadership posts to join Speaker Pelosi.  Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), one of the architects of the Democrats House victory, might seek the role of majority whip.  Whether or not Representative Emanuel assumes this position, he will be an influential force on immigration and other issues.

House Republicans: Given this defeat, it is when, not if, House Republicans will begin their leadership fights.  House Speaker Denny Hastert (R-IL) already has indicated that he will not remain in leadership, but Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) has made no statements about his continued ambitions. Representative Mike Pence (R-IN), chair of the Republican Study Group, the largest conservative caucus in the House GOP, already has indicated that he will make a run for Minority Leader. (Representative Pence authored, along with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), an immigration reform proposal that he characterized as a compromise.  Among other provisions, their bill mandated that people in the U.S. without papers would have to return to their countries of origin, a measure some called a “touch-base” proposal.)  With the Democratic take-over of the House, anti-immigrant House Members lost the advantages that accrue by being part of the majority party. It remains to be seen what they will do to regenerate themselves and their base in Congress. 

Democratic Control of the Senate: The balance of power in the Senate rested on results from one race, Virginia. Having now been called for the Democrats, the Senate in the 110th Congress will consist of 51 Democrats (including two Senators caucusing with them from Vermont and Connecticut) and 49 Republicans.  Given Democratic control of the Senate, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), a strong supporter of effective and fair immigration reform, will become the new Majority Leader and Democrats will control the Senate floor and chair the committees. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) likely will chair the Judiciary Committee, with Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) chairing the Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship Subcommittee. Republican control of the Senate would have meant that Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has not been a supporter of good immigration reform, would have been the next Majority Leader and Republicans would have controlled the Senate floor and the committee structure.

Clearly, the margins between the two parties are very close.  An important player in the immigration debate who will be returning to the Senate is Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ). Although he was never expected to lose his seat, Senator Kyl’s re-election was closer and more hotly contested than had been anticipated.  Senator Kyl and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) are the chief architects of the anti-immigrant measures and amendments in the Senate-passed S. 2611, and are expected to continue to work in support of measures that immigration advocates will oppose. Equally interesting will be the role that Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) will be playing in the 110th Congress.  Running as an Independent after being defeated in the Connecticut Democratic primary, Senator Lieberman will be courted by both parties, and will be enjoying this courtship.

What is the future of Immigration Reform? With Democrats taking control of Congress, can we expect the 110th Congress to debate and pass a good immigration reform measure?  That is uncertain. Why?  Because of the diversity of the Democratic Caucus, especially given the positions of some new Representatives, that reflects different views on immigration and immigration reform and the need for both Democratic and Republican leadership to push through issues that unite, not divide the party.  On the other hand, Senators like John McCain (R-AZ) and Edward Kennedy ((D-MA) will be pushing their colleagues to pass immigration reform

In addition, both Democrats and Republicans will be studying the significance of the fact that 76% of Latinos voted for Democrats (vs 23% for Republicans) in 2006, versus 40% to 44% who voted for President Bush in 2004. We will have to get more information on specific races, but in past elections, Latinos voted against candidates they perceived as anti-immigrant and anti-immigration and used immigration as the lens through which they viewed candidates on other issues. Thus, any party that wants to capture this important sector of the electorate needs to be “right” on immigration.  Furthermore, and this may be the bottom line, Americans through this election sent a strong signal that they want problems solved.  Clearly, the current immigration system is one of these problems, and the 109th Congress, under Republican leadership, made a mistake by making immigration an issue in the election rather than a problem for Congress to address. Finally, by their choices in this election, voters also demonstrated that they no longer view the Republican Party as the party of national security.  This gives Democrats the opportunity to frame immigration as an issue, if handled appropriately, which can help enhance our security. If the past is any indicator of the present and future, immigration measures pass Congress with bipartisan support.  Given this election, we will have to wait and see how each Party determines its relationship to the other will it be cooperation or gridlock?  We also will have to wait and see how both the Senate and House each work with the Bush Administration. Also yet to be seen is how President Bush will position himself on specific issues, including immigration, and how he will work with a Congress no longer controlled solely by his Party. The President indicated during a press conference held after the election that immigration is a vital issue and he hopes to get something done, especially given the progress being made on the border in terms of security.

As Democrats and Republicans look to the 2008 election, which they already have begun to do, they both will position themselves as problem solvers. Our immigration system is one of the big problems that needs to be solved. They need to take up this challenge, and we need to be clear with them that now is the time for real, not fake, solutions. Everyone agrees that our current system does not work for our nation, for our security, for our families and for our economy. What kind of immigration system would work for America?  One that reunites families, allows people who are here to earn the opportunity to stay and achieve legal status as permanent residents, gives American employers the workers they need, creates a legal pathway for people to come here in the future, and enhances our security.  What should NOT be included in any reform package are measures that are spun as “enforcement”but really are “poison pills” that eliminate due process and civil liberty protections for noncitizens.

The ILRC will continue to advocate with our immigrant partners and colleagues in support of fair and effective immigration reform.  For more information, contact Judy Golub at and 415-255-9499, ext. 465.