Immigration Reform: Is it dead in 2010?

The first casualty of the new GOP House may be the issue treasured by Latino voters. Bryan Curtis talks to liberals and conservatives about the political desert migrants face in the next two years.

In at least one corner of Washington last week, the sense of despair was thoroughly bipartisan. Liberal and conservative advocates of immigration reform looked at the new GOP-controlled, Tea Party-infused House and saw a brick wall.

“The window is closing in the immediate future for significant immigration reform that would be comprehensive,” said Dr. Richard Land, a reform advocate who is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“I think you’re going to get a lot more emphasis on enforcement of existing law and securing the border,” Land added.

His liberal allies agreed. “To pretend we’re going to get something on immigration reform or finish the agenda on health-care reform is delusional,” said Raúl Grijalva, a Democratic congressman from Arizona.

When Democrats controlled both chambers, there was little progress made on putting the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship. To see why that’s an even longer shot now, all you have to do is look at the new House chessboard. Republican Lamar Smith from Texas is set to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Steve King from Iowa will chair the immigration subcommittee. For reform advocates, Smith and King are like Scylla and Charybdis—Smith the low-key, unrelenting pol and King the motormouth who has asked for an electrified border fence. After the election, Smith issued a statement saying his priority was enforcing the laws. “American citizens should not have to fear for their lives on U.S. soil!” he wrote.

When the new Congress is sworn in, the Tea Partiers figure to have higher priorities than immigration. “I think these folks have been elected to come to Washington and take a meat axe to the federal budget and to undo Obamacare,” Land said. “And those are going to be their first, second, third, fourth, and fifth priorities.”

Moreover, on Tuesday Republicans managed to elect three Hispanic statewide candidates—Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, along with Governors Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susana Martinez of New Mexico—who favor tougher immigration laws. That makes the hope of compromise bleak.

The new Washington figured to look a lot like the Capitol did between 2005 and 2006. “It’s an ugly flashback for us,” said Marshall Fitz, director of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Then as now, you had a Senate coalition sympathetic to immigration reform, and a supportive president. You also had a House that was itching to put up harsh enforcement bills. “They canceled each other out, and all that passed was the stupid fence,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the pro-reform group America’s Voice.

So if nothing happens legislatively, then the question turns to political theater. What should the parties do? Given the heavy Latino turnout in states like Nevada Tuesday, Barack Obama must find a way to show he’s an ally of the Latino community by 2012. Sharry suggested that if the Midwest economy continues to falter, Obama’s best path to victory may be through states like Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida, where the Latino vote looms large.

Grijalva said Obama should call the GOP’s bluff. “It’s a good time for Democrats to put it on the table and let Republicans destroy it,” he said.

That, in turn, would create a scenario in which the House of Representatives becomes an anti-immigrant rump that could blow the election. Sharron Angle, who ran a series of immigration commercials that resembled non-comedy versions of Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, is a cautionary tale. Latinos gave 68 percent of their vote to Harry Reid.

Now that he has six more years of job security, the thinking goes, perhaps John McCain will perform a dramatic deus ex McCaina and champion reform again.

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For now, reform advocates are entertaining long-shot scenarios. “I have always thought if anything significant were to happen on immigration reform, it would have to be done between now and the first of the year,” Land said, referring to the lame-duck session. But that would take a shove from Obama. It’s more likely that Harry Reid will use the lame duck to put forward the DREAM Act, which grants citizenship to immigrant children who crossed the border as minors. Reid promised to bring up the bill in an election-eve interview with Univision’s Jorge Ramos.

Land suggested a new crisis along the border could forge a grand compromise where Republicans got tougher border security and Democrats got some kind of reform.

Finally and most tantalizingly, there was the specter of John McCain, or whichever politician was appearing in his clothing these days. Before his dramatic about-face during his Senate primary campaign—when he proclaimed, “Complete the danged fence!”—McCain was a booster of immigration reform. Now that he has six more years of job security, the thinking goes, perhaps he will perform a dramatic deus ex McCaina and champion reform again. McCain is still seething from 2008, when voices on the Hill didn’t believe he would be a better champion for immigration reform than Barack Obama.

“Don’t quote me on this,” said one reform advocate, “but maybe he was right.”

Bryan Curtis is a national correspondent at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis at