The Latino Backlash Begins

Reeling from the passage of Arizona’s harsh new immigration law, Hispanic advocates are angry and organized. Benjamin Sarlin reports on the counterinsurgency—and the Democrats’ divide.

04.27.10 10:43 PM ET

Arizona’s harsh new immigration law has galvanized Latino activists nationwide. Tens of thousands of pro-immigration protestors are expected to rally in Washington and around the country this week, hoping to channel anger over the onerous restrictions in Arizona into momentum on Capitol Hill to pass a far more progressive national immigration bill. Immigration reformers have demanded action from the White House from the moment President Obama took office. But the Democrats whose support they need to pass a bill are divided on the wisdom of such a move.

Obama derided the Arizona law, which makes being an illegal alien a crime and authorizes law enforcement to question anyone they suspect is undocumented, as "misguided" last week, calling on Washington to jump-start national immigration reform. But in Washington, where the Democrats' legislative calendar is already crowded with financial regulation, climate change, and ongoing efforts to boost jobs, the idea of getting immigration done shortly before a tough election is dividing progressives in Congress and the punditocracy alike.

“Latinos were a base vote in 2006 and 2008 and they're about to stay home because you [the Democrats] haven't done shit for them," says Frank Sharry.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), a leading voice in calling for a national boycott of his home state's businesses in protest of the new Arizona law, said Wednesday that talks with the House leadership about bringing up a reform bill had been "good and frank and honest"—but added that it fell to the Senate to make the first move. "At some point I'd like to see the vote in the House," he said.

Rep. Zack Space, a Blue Dog Democrat from Ohio, has already put out a statement asking House leaders to skip immigration this year, and focus instead on jobs.

Bryan Curtis: What Immigrant Crisis?

Mark McKinnon: Bush Was Right on Immigration

Tunku Varadarajan: Say ‘Hell No’ to Arizona
Grijalva said he understood that for some members of his party, a vote on reform could damage their re-election chances. But he'd like to move ahead, regardless. "I understand there will be a percentage that votes against it," he said. "But at the very least let's get the debate going and let the chips fall...I'm not saying they should vote for it."

Advocates of national action say the matter can’t wait until next year. And many Democratic strategists argue that even an unsuccessful attempt at reform would be smart politics, rallying Latinos in November, when the Democrats will need all the help they can get to hold off a GOP surge.

But the issue has also mobilized the GOP’s base, and Republicans fired up by Arizona’s action could imperil Democrats holding office in conservative territory. Fear that the immigration debate could cost Democrats more seats has House Democrats like Rep. Steny Hoyer flashing the yellow light. And one anonymous aide told Talking Points Memo that there was "just no way" the issue would be brought up.

"We always get the 'smart' pundits who say Democrats would be foolhardy to bring up immigration, you'll drive independents away and mobilize the right wing,” Frank Sharry, founder of America’s Voice, a nonprofit devoted to building support for immigration reform, said. “First of all, the right is already totally mobilized. Second, independents want solutions and not politics as usual. And third—guess what?—Latinos were a base vote in 2006 and 2008 and they're about to stay home because you haven't done shit for them."

Adds Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum: “This is a tough issue regardless of what year it is, and that’s a fact. But it’s also a fact that this issue is the defining moral crisis of our time.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the lead Republican negotiator on the issue, upped the ante last week by demanding Congress tackle climate change first, claiming immigration reform still lacked the necessary groundwork to succeed. His argument has drawn sympathy from a number of progressive opinion leaders, including the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein and The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait.

Democratic candidates in several key Senate races could potentially benefit from a surge in Latino voters, including Sen. Michael Bennett in Colorado, Rep. Kendrick Meek in Florida, Sen. Barbara Boxer in California, and Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada. Marco Rubio, the likely Republican nominee in Florida’s Senate race and the son of Cuban immigrants, made a rare break with the Tea Party line on Tuesday, condemning Arizona’s immigration law--an indicator of how the issue could put candidates on the defensive. While efforts in 2006 and 2007 to pass comprehensive reform ultimately failed, the resulting surge in turnout by Hispanic voters helped power Democrats' 2006 and 2008 electoral gains and erased a once-successful minority outreach strategy from President Bush. Obama won 66% of the Hispanic vote in 2008, a major gain from the 53% who went for the previous nominee, John Kerry.

But despite its potential political benefits, Roberto Suro, a professor of journalism of USC-Annenberg and former director of the Pew Hispanic Center, warns that rushing a bill to the front burner could actually hurt the reformers’ cause. He suggested that they should be especially wary of evidence that Reid is bringing legislation with the expectation it will fail.

“If the Democrats were to say they’re going to railroad something out of committee, take it to the floor with no assurance the necessary votes are there, then knock it around for a week before it dies, then it’s not likely to come up again until—when? 2013?” Suro said. “If that’s the case, it’s a disaster for reformers. It will be the third time in four years that this thing will have a push that ends in failure.”

Deepak Bhargava, the executive director of the pro-reform Center for Community Change, told the Daily Beast that a futile battle would indeed be cause for concern.

“We are not for a kamikaze mission to have a bill go down in flames. We are for the Democrats having a proposal and then publicly challenging Republicans to negotiate within a given timeframe and then they can say yes and no,” he said. “But it doesn’t do the issue any good to see a partisan bill go down.”

That’s not to say he’s pessimistic about the chances for reform. Bhargava and other activists say their movement is in a stronger position to influence the debate than it was during the 2006 and 2007 battles. Immigration groups have worked hard in the intervening years to cultivate support from unions, big business, and conservative religious groups, although the coalition is still a fragile one. They’ve also shown that they can still turn out their supporters as strongly as ever: a pro-reform rally in Washington DC last month drew tens of thousands of participants and major rallies are scheduled in dozens of cities on May 1st. 

Bhargava says reformers would take a page from the health care debate focus on flooding town hall meetings as well. If a federal bill doesn’t come to the floor soon, Bhargava said he expected to see new campaigns of nonviolent civil disobedience and increased support for a boycott against Arizona, a strategy already endorsed by La Opinion, the nation’s largest Spanish-language newspaper.

In the end, the issue still comes down to whether a handful of wary Democratic and Republican lawmakers can back a new bill. Obama recently pointed out that 11 sitting GOP senators voted for reform under President Bush, providing a potential source of votes to break a filibuster. But the environment has changed significantly since then—there’s no longer a pro-immigration Republican president to lobby for votes and GOP primary threats have cowed even former champions of reform, like Sen. John McCain, into a hardline stance.

“Our chances are still not great, but we always thought we'd have our moment,” Sharry said.

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for