Dem leader Harry Reid and senior Senator (and former KKK klansman) Robert Byrd working in the Congress on the Dream Act
The immigration issue has become so toxic in American politics that Congress is now unable to pass even modest measures that once had widespread support, and immigration supporters who were once on the verge of a bipartisan breakthrough are now in danger of a backlash in next year’s elections.
The potency of the issue was on full display in the Senate on Wednesday, as eight Democrats, mostly from Republican-leaning states, helped scuttle a narrowly tailored measure aimed at granting legal residency for longtime students whose parents came to the United States illegally.
And the death of the so-called DREAM Act, which once had 47 co-sponsors in the Senate, was a stark reminder of the depth of discontent among voters to Democratic strategists who personally back liberalization of immigration rules.
“This issue has been so painful for so many people — they’re running scared,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the sponsor of the DREAM Act. When immigration is debated in Congress, Durbin said, “the switchboards light up and the hate starts spewing.”
The vote in the Senate shows just how terrifying it is for most Republicans and even some Democrats to appear open to accommodating illegal immigrants. The election in the 5th District of Massachusetts last week was another bellwether. Democrat Niki Tsongas’ victory over Republican Jim Ogonowski was much closer than expected due to frustration among working-class voters over the immigration issue.
The House has no plans to take up the DREAM Act anytime soon.
At one point, the DREAM Act had 47 co-sponsors in the Senate but had little chance in the toxic atmosphere that has engulfed the immigration issue. And the key procedural motion requiring 60 votes failed 52-44, perhaps the final death knell for any significant immigration legislation until 2009.
The DREAM Act was narrowly targeted and would benefit only high school graduates whose parents brought them to the country illegally years ago, but even this scaled-down legislation was derided as “amnesty” by opponents.
Indeed, despite the votes of a dozen Republicans, eight moderate Democrats voted against the legislation, guaranteeing its defeat. The Republican votes in favor mostly came from politically vulnerable senators from Democratic states. Republicans Mel Martinez of Florida and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who come from states with large immigrant populations, also voted for the bill.
But regardless of the Republican support, Democrats were undone by a handful from their own party who consistently get an earful about illegal immigration when they go back home.
“What I hear is, ‘Look, you’ve got to secure the border,’” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who voted against the bill. “That has to be the No. 1 priority.”
Conrad was joined by other moderate Democrats such as Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jon Tester of Montana, Max Baucus of Montana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, who faces a tough election next year in a state trending for the GOP, also voted against the bill.
If every Democrat had voted for the bill, it would have achieved the 60-vote threshold needed to proceed.
“We’ve been through a very emotional time on immigration, and we need to sit down and think this through,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who voted against the bill. “This summer [immigration debate] just fired up the emotions, and that has not gone away.”
Durbin, who has adopted this issue as a top priority, predicted that his support of the DREAM Act would be used against him in his campaign next year, and he was pessimistic the Senate would take it up again anytime soon. One other immigration measure, which would loosen rules for migrant agricultural labor, could be attached to the farm bill next week, but it’s not clear if that proposal has enough support to be approved.
The DREAM Act is designed to reward students who have been in the United States for years, have graduated from high school and plan to go to college or join the military. The idea is that kids whose parents are illegal aliens should not be punished with deportation, because they had no choice in coming to the country at a young age. The eligible students would receive no federal funding or benefits but simply would be granted permanent resident status.
“This is not a free education,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “It’s an opportunity to go to college.”
But the limited scope of the bill seemed irrelevant in the debate. Brimming with confidence from the summer defeat of comprehensive immigration reform, opponents rejoined the arguments that lit up talk radio over the summer and killed the last immigration bill.
“America has clearly rejected amnesty, but Democrats have obviously refused to listen,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). “This is a clarifying moment in the immigration debate: Republicans have heard Americans’ desire for border security and interior enforcement first.”