WASHINGTON — With a divisive new law in Arizona providing the kindling, the national debate over immigration has reignited, as Democrats and Republicans in Congress appeal to their political bases ahead of November's elections.
It's unclear, however, whether Congress and the Obama administration are prepared to act on the issue or just talk.
President Barack Obama on Friday called Arizona's law "misguided." The new state law, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed Friday, will send local police to detain and interrogate individuals about their rights to be in the country and create state criminal penalties for immigration violations.
Brewer, a Republican who faces a contested primary election, said her decision was "by no means made lightly" but she concluded it could be done without violating civil rights, and was the correct step "as we work to solve a crisis that we did not create and the federal government has refused to fix."
Obama said that the measure showed why Congress needed to pass a national immigration overhaul soon. "If we continue to fail to act at a federal level," the president said, "we will continue to see misguided efforts opening up around the country."
Obama, at a naturalization ceremony for members of the U.S. military, said the Arizona legislation threatened "to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe."
He said he'd instructed his administration, including the Justice Department, to study the law's impact on U.S. citizens' civil rights.
On Capitol Hill, however, the legislative agenda already is packed through the summer, and fitting in something as controversial as immigration appears unlikely. The agenda includes overhauling financial regulation, an energy and climate bill and a Supreme Court confirmation. After Labor Day, lawmakers will head to the campaign trail for November's elections.
Polls find that most Americans want their leaders to focus on the economy and jobs. However, Hispanics, the fastest-growing group of voters, want action on immigration.
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said polls had found that Hispanics were disappointed by the president's inaction to date on his promise of legislation, and also found "potential apathy toward the Democratic Party" this fall by Hispanics.
Obama vowed to overhaul immigration laws as a presidential candidate in 2008, but he didn't deal with issue during his first year in the White House.
Clarissa Martinez de Castro, the director of immigration for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic-American lobby, said the Arizona immigration bill "creates a watershed moment that demands action from Congress and the White House."
Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research center that opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants, said he didn't think that Democrats could — or even necessarily wanted to — pass a comprehensive immigration bill this year.
"My sense is this is really more about trying to limit the damage in November by trying to keep Hispanics from being too demoralized," Krikorian said. He said that Democrats' only chance for legislation this year might be a narrow measure such as the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented minors a right to citizenship if they earn college degrees or complete term of military services.
"They're kind of between a rock and a hard place," Krikorian said of the Democrats. "If they really make a serious push for amnesty, the tea party protests are going to triple. They could actually lose the House because of this, and if they don't do it, not lose the House.
"But if they don't at least appear to be doing something, Luis Gutierrez has, for instance, threatened to call on Hispanics to stay home in November. That's not an empty threat." Gutierrez is a Democratic U.S. representative from Illinois.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is the only Republican dealmaker who's involved in both the immigration and the energy legislation. If Graham wants an energy and climate bill vote before an immigration debate, he has some leverage. That legislation aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and offers provisions for more nuclear, coal and alternative power.
Obama hasn't demanded that it be pre-empted for an immigration debate. "I would leave that decision to the leaders of the Senate," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who's in a tough re-election battle, has told immigration advocacy groups that he thinks Congress will take up immigration this year. Hispanics are a large voting bloc in Nevada.
Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives don't seem as eager as Reid is to tackle immigration, however. They say privately that House Democrats have endured enough tough votes on thorny issues and aren't prepared to deal with one that could become a wedge in November.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., on Thursday shot down reports that Democratic leaders had reached agreement that addressing immigration was a greater priority than an energy bill was.
"I don't know that anybody made a determination in the discussions I have with leadership that immigration is more important than energy," Hoyer said, adding: "I am not sure the Senate can move an immigration bill."
Gibbs dismissed the notion that immigration is too politically risky this year.
"I'm sure sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan is a risky political thing, but it's the right thing to do," Gibbs said. "It's a politically risky thing to make sure that two auto companies don't go under, causing a million jobs to be lost, but it was the right thing to do. The president was elected to do the right things, not just to do what was politically easy."
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