In Congress, a harder line on illegal immigrants

Dec 26 2010 - 10:53pm

WASHINGTON -- The end of the year means a turnover of House control from Democratic to Republican and, with it, Congress' approach to immigration. Congress will go from trying to help young, illegal immigrants become legal to debating whether children born to parents who are in the country illegally should continue to enjoy automatic U.S. citizenship.

Such a hardened approach -- and the rhetoric certain to accompany it -- should resonate with the GOP faithful who helped swing the House in Republicans' favor.

But it also could further hurt the GOP in its endeavor to grab a large enough share of the growing Latino vote to win the White House and the Senate majority in 2012.

Legislation to test interpretations of the 14th Amendment as granting citizenship to children of illegal immigrants will emerge early next session. That is likely to be followed by attempts to force employers to use a still-developing web system, dubbed E-Verify, to check that all of their employees are in the U.S. legally.

Democrats ended the year failing for a second time to win passage of the Dream Act, which would have given hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants a chance at legal status.

House Republicans will try to fill the immigration reform vacuum left by Democrats with legislation designed to send illegal immigrants packing and deter others from trying to come to the U.S.

Democrats, who will still control the Senate, will be playing defense against harsh immigration enforcement measures, mindful of their need to keep on good footing with Hispanic voters.

But a slimmer majority and an eye on 2012 may prevent Senate Democrats from bringing to the floor any sweeping immigration bill, or even a limited one that hints at providing legal status to people in the country illegally.

President Barack Obama could be a wild card. He'll have at his disposal his veto power should a bill denying citizenship to children of illegal immigrants make it to his desk. But Obama also has made cracking down on employers a key part of his administration's immigration enforcement tactics.

Hispanic voters and their allies will look for Obama to broker a deal on immigration as he did on tax cuts and health care. After the Dream Act failed in the Senate this month, Obama said his administration would not give up on the measure.

The president has taken heavy hits in Spanish-language and ethnic media for failing to keep his promise to address immigration promptly and taking it off the agenda last summer. His administration's continued deportations of immigrants -- a record 393,000 in the 2010 fiscal year -- have also made tenuous his relationship with Hispanic voters.

John Morton, who oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said there are no plans to change the agency's enforcement tactics, which are focused on immigrants who commit crimes but also have led to detaining and deporting many immigrants who have not committed crimes.

The agency also will continue to expand Secure Commun-ities, the program that allows immigration officials to check fingerprints of all people booked into jail to see if they are in the country illegally.

Both illegal immigrants and residents can end up being deported under the program, which the Homeland Security Department hopes to expand nationwide by 2013.

Many of those attending a recent gathering of conservative Hispanics in Washington warned another round of tough laws surrounded by ugly anti-immigrant discussions could doom the GOP's 2012 chances.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a possible 2012 candidate, cited Meg Whitman's failed gubernatorial bid in California despite her high spending.

When 22 percent of the electorate is Latino, candidates can't win without a vigorous presence in the Hispanic community and a "message that is understandable and involves respect," he said.

Even so, Gingrich was unwilling to call on his fellow Republican senators to drop their opposition to the Dream Act, saying the legislation should not have been considered without giving lawmakers a chance to amend it.

The next Congress will be populated with many newcomers elected on a platform of tougher immigration enforcement. They'll have ready ears in Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, of Texas, who will chair the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Steve King, of Iowa, who is expected to chair the committee's immigration subcommittee.

That's a recipe for more measures aimed at immigration enforcement.

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