Democrats acknowledge immigration Catch-22, target Republicans
The Senate’s lone Latino Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), and others lamented the challenges in passing immigration reform at a roundtable with Hispanic media. (Getty Images)
Senate Democrats are frustrated over the lack of progress on immigration reform in Congress, saying that they’re stuck between an “intransigent” Republican Party that’s opposed to comprehensive reform and an anxious Latino electorate that believes Democrats have not done enough to advance the cause.
In a roundtable with Hispanic journalists on Wednesday, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and others addressed criticism from some Latinos that President Obama and Democrats in Congress have brought up immigration legislation such as the DREAM Act only when they have an unrealistic chance of passing in order to pander to Latinos, and have not put enough political capital behind actually passing bills into law.
“It isn’t a question of Democrats pursuing initiatives that are doomed to fail,” Menendez responded. “We need a bipartisan approach in a Senate in which the Republicans have used the filibuster, i.e. 60 votes for just about everything … We cannot move forward on immigration, including the DREAM Act, unless we have Republican support.”
Menendez said that he would rather be criticized for introducing immigration reform, a top legislative priority for Latino voters and activists, then not dealing with the issue at all.
“I always find it interesting: if we make an effort, it is categorized as ‘destined to fail’ and if we don’t make an effort, we are criticized for not making an effort on comprehensive immigration reform,” said Menendez. “And so it seems to me that if I have to be criticized, I prefer to be criticized for making an effort.”
The senators looked to soothe Latino voters who are frustrated over the lack of immigration reform legislation and the Obama administration’s deportation policies, which has led to record numbers of undocumented immigrants being sent out of the country while the number of migrants being caught at the border has trickled to a 40-year low.
Latinos are also expected to play a crucial role in the 2012 elections, and Democrats believe they can’t afford to lose their support after the group backed President Obama by a two-to-one margin during his successful 2008 White House bid.
Latinos still trust Democrats over Republicans on the immigration issue, but there have been points of contention between the two over the past three years.
Democrats brought up the DREAM Act for a vote twice late last year, but both times they failed to break a Republican filibuster, which was joined by a handful of centrist Democrats.
Senate Republicans also brought up the fact that Democrats didn’t bring up a comprehensive immigration bill before Feb. 2010 when they had a 60-member “super majority.” Congress spent much of 2009 and 2010 consumed with Obama’s healthcare law.
“Democrats had a filibuster-proof Senate before last year’s elections, and they didn’t bring any comprehensive immigration bills to the floor,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “I wonder why? Republicans couldn’t have blocked it. [It’s] odd that Sen. Menendez didn’t bring any immigration bill before the Senate.”
Despite that, Democrats sought to assure they were on the right side of the issue.
“If you look at the sweep of history, we’re on the right side of it,” said freshman Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) “The DREAM Act will happen.”
The group of seven Democratic senators who attended the roundtable placed sole blame for the lack of progress on Republicans, who say they are opposed to passing broad immigration legislation before the U.S.-Mexico border is deemed secure.
“You can have all the courage in the world and you could try to push the issue, but if you have an intransigent opposition who has chosen to use the procedures of the Senate in a way [that’s designed for President Obama to fail], that’s a huge challenge,” said Menendez.
The lawmakers said that the filibuster has impeded their ability to pass much more than just immigration bills. A recent example they used is the current battle over extending Obama’s payroll tax cut, which expires at the end of the year. Democrats claim their extension proposal could save the average Latino family $1,170 per year.
When it comes to immigration issues, the senators said there are some silver linings, including the Obama administration’s use of executive power to cut down on deportations of non-criminal undocumented immigrants and DREAM Act students.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who chairs an immigration subcommittee, also said that he’s heard “rumblings” that House Republicans could collaborate with Senate Democrats on some unnamed minor immigration bills over the next year.
“My hope and feeling is that 2012 will be a little bit better, maybe considerably better on immigration issues in the Senate and the House than 2011 was,” said Schumer.
Menendez, however, cautioned that likely would not lead to passage of a comprehensive bill.
“I certainly do not believe … we’ll have comprehensive reform without Republican assistance on the DREAM Act,” he said.
The New Jersey senator encouraged Latinos to pressure candidates during the 2012 elections on their immigration stances.
“The next election needs to be a defining moment for the Hispanic community to put everybody’s feet to the fire,” he said.