Immigration push prompts political posturing, say partisan rivals

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The leaked release of the White House’s purported draft immigration rewrite has caused a ritualistic frenzy of blaming and denials — and also has reinforced bipartisan agreement among debate watchers that many politicians are posturing to hide their real views from the public.

“That’s what everybody on all sides is doing,” said Roy Beck, the founder of NumbersUSA, a reform group that is pushing to reduce current immigration levels.

In the 2007 and 2007 immigration debates, “that happened a lot,” said Mario Lopez, president of the GOP-aligned, immigration-boosting Hispanic Leadership Fund. Prominent supporters of the draft bills “bailed out at the last minute,” said Lopez.

On Sunday, the White House’s leaked draft prompted Republican Sen. Mario Rubio to immediately announce it would be “dead on arrival” if President Barack Obama submitted it to Congress.

However, the president’s draft plan shares many features with the plan endorsed by Rubio and seven other senators. Both plans would allow at least 11 million illegal immigrants to immediately get permission to live and work in the United States, while also delaying their formal receipt of green cards and citizenships.

“The weekend’s blowup is pretty much what one would expect from Rubio in the best of worlds for immigration reform, [because] Rubio’s strategy from the start has been to play up his differences with the White House as much as possible,” said a Monday article at TalkingPointsMemo.com, a progressive news site.

That view was touted by Ben Winograd, an attorney at the American Immigration Council. That organization is an offshoot of a trade group, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, that would profit if the government increases the supply of work permits and green cards.

On Feb. 18, Winograd tweeted out a section of the TPM article: “Rubio’s strategy from the start has been to play up his differences with the White House as much as possible.”

The TPM article was also touted and quoted by Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, who wants to halve annual immigration to roughly 500,000 people.

“Why Rubio-Obama amnesty spat? [To] Dupe GOPs to ‘think they’re somehow thumbing their nose at Obama” by backing Rubio bill,’” he tweeted on Monday. ”Obama’s amnesty bill = Rubio’s amnesty bill.”

Any bill that provides even a conditional amnesty to at least 11 million illegals or an increased inflow of workers offers risks and reward to politicians.

For Rubio, it has already earned him much favorable coverage in the establishment press, and boosted his visibility among the corporate side of the GOP.

Some polls show amnesty and increased immigration are very unpopular among GOP supporters, who prefer small-scale immigration reforms that reduce immigration of low-skilled workers. (RELATED: Some immigration groups say polls are all wrong)

The GOP’s supporters are critical, not least because they can reject Rubio during future primary elections, but also be cause they can choose not to vote for him if he runs for president. In the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, turnout for the GOP candidates tanked in critical Midwest states.

This week, the Federation for American Immigration Reform put out an anti-Rubio petition. “Senator Rubio needs to hear that his support for a ‘pathway to citizenship’ is wrong,” said the petition.

Outside the GOP, there’s a broad public skepticism towards amnesty and increased worries about the economy.

An amnesty would increase federal welfare spending as the national debt grows past $16 trillion, increase competition for jobs while roughly 20 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed, and likely reduce low-skill workers’ wages when wages are already falling for everyone except those at the very top.

The posturing goes the other direction, too.

“A lot of representatives who are saying kinds nice things about ‘maybe we ought to have an amnesty’ are basically saying [to us] that they think they need to do it to avoid being seen as hostile” to ethnic and racial minorities, said Beck, the NumbersUSA chief.

However, among politicians with a record of voting against looser immigration, “we’re getting pretty strong indications from behind the scenes that they’re not going to vote” for an amnesty, he told The Daily Caller.

Beck’s attention is focused on senators who justify an amnesty as a step towards stronger enforcement measures.

Few people believe the enforcement measures will be implemented, and the senators touting greater enforcement “know in their heart that they’re going to vote for [amnesty] regardless” of enforcement, he said.

“Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York warned against reading too much into Republican objections, calling them ‘early shadow boxing,’ before rigorous negotiations get under way,” said a Feb. 5 Reuters article.

“The open borders people for the most part know that their [GOP] allies, when they talk about enforcement, they don’t mean it,” said Beck.

Both Democrats and Republicans are under pressure from the public and from pro-amnesty business, progressive and ethnic-lobby groups.

African-American legislators, for example, faced peer pressure from fellow progressives on Capital Hill, but street pressure from voters in their districts. (RELATED: Black caucus to join push to immigration reform)

Skepticism about Rubio’s strategy has increased since January, partly because of his decision to back the “gang of eight” bipartisan immigration proposal. The plan was drafted crafted by Sens. Chuck Schumer, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, all of whom have previously supported a conditional amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Among GOP activists, support for Rubio and the gang plan has cooled, because there’s little evidence that a future GOP presidential candidate can significantly boost the GOP’s Hispanic vote without alienating the far large number of working-class white voters in critical Midwest swing states. (RELATED: Poll shows few gains for GOP on immigration reform)

The skepticism is underlined by the tepid reaction to Rubio’s strategy among GOP leaders, such as Rush Limbaugh and tea party groups.

If Rubio is engaged in posturing, he’s not the first politician.

In 2006 and 2007, the then-Sen. Obama voted for and against several measures in a pending amnesty bill. That voting record allowed him to say that he protected workers from company-backed “guest worker” programs, supported business’ “guest-worker” programs and conditional amnesty for Latinos, and that he would revive the proposal after it failed.

“We’ve always pointed out in the Hispanic media that he’s talked out of both sides of his mouth on this,” said Lopez.

This year, some GOP leaders, such as Rep. Paul Ryan — who has supported prior bills granting conditional amnesties — say Obama may be posturing again as a supporter of Rubio’s gang plan, while actually working to wreck it.

Last week, Ryan praised Obama’s low-key comments on amnesty during the Jan. 21 State of the Union speech. Obama “actually doesn’t want to politicize this, which is conducive to getting something done,” Ryan said.

On Sunday, however, Ryan reacted to the leaked Obama plan by saying the leak “tells us that he’s looking for a partisan advantage [in the 2014 mid-term election] and not a bipartisan solution.”

Some of Obama’s strongest supporters share the suspicion that the leak was White House posturing.

“If the president really wants immigration reform to pass, one of the most helpful things he could do is put out his own plan as a decoy, to draw Republican fire, while the Senate works toward bipartisan consensus,” said Eugene Robinson, a pro-Obama columnist. “Which looks suspiciously like what just happened,” he added.

The political risk of amnesty debates is illustrated by the career of the GOP’s two leading advocates of a “path to citizenship.”

In 2006, Arizona Sen. McCain pushed amnesty and increased worker immigration, but downplayed it in 2007 as he tried to win the GOP presidential nomination.

He lost the 2008 election, garnering only 31 percent of the Latino vote, and then avoided the issue until after his 2010 Senate re-election.

After Obama’s 2012 victory, McCain joined with Graham and Schumer to launch the new gang of eight plan.

South Carolina’s Graham backed way from the 2007 amnesty proposals during the run-up to his last election in 2008. This year, he’s pushing the issue again, even though he’s up for election in 2014.

But since launching the new amnesty bill, Graham has used televised hearings to tout his conservative credentials on other issues, such as gun rights and Obama’s nominees.

“You know, I’m in a red state. I know I’m always exposed in a Republican primary,” he told the Washington Post this month.“I think it’s positive for me to one day beat the hell out of them [on some issues] and the next day see if we can do a deal,” on other issues, he said.

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