Immigration Reform: The Hot Tamale No One Wants To Touch

Attorney General Eric Holder Sunday denied that the timing of the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Arizona’s immigration law has anything to do with the looming midterm elections. But question remain about whether the Obama administration really did bring the lawsuit now to help Democrats with Latino voters and drive a wedge between Republicans this fall.

If so, the lawsuit is likely to be the only immigration policy action on which lawmakers will be able to campaign, if the Sunday show appearances by members of Congress are any indication of the lack of appetite for passing a comprehensive immigration reform measure this year.President Obama still says he wants to push for a comprehensive measure and Democratic leadership led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are about to take a closer look at the issue in the weeks before the long August recess. There’s no doubt that championing a plan that would finally address the estimated more than 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States would help Democrats with progressive voters and Latinos when they need every vote they can get. And, as a House aide told TPM this spring, some Democrats hope the effort also can make Republicans look anti-Hispanic and insensitive. “Either way we win,” the aide said, even if no bill is passed.

On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Holder was asked about the politics of the lawsuit.

“Some are saying that it’s just all politics. That what you’re trying to do is to brand Republicans an anti-immigration or, in fact, anti-Hispanic before the elections in November,” host Bob Schieffer said.

“Not true at all,” Holder said, claiming that “a substantial number” of Republicans support the lawsuit.

Obama’s senior adviser David Axelrod, appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” seemed to blame the lack of action on Republicans, even though many Democrats from red-leaning states and districts are squeamish about tackling a measure that critics say would grant “amnesty” to illegal immigrants.

“[W]e are not going to get it done without bipartisan support. … [W]e have to do it together … we have not seen much movement,” Axelrod said.

“The last time this debate occurred in the Senate, there were 11 Republicans who joined in, and, of course, President Bush helped to lead the effort. And most of those Republicans are not willing to move forward,” he said. “And we are calling on those folks on the other side of the aisle, who said in the past that they thought this was an important issue to solve, to join us. And when they are willing, then we will be able to move forward.”

But anyone looking at the numbers game in Congress with fewer than 120 days until voters go to the pools thinks that’s highly unlikely.

“They don’t want to deal with it before the election,” New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said on CNN.

Sen. Jon Kyl, who in 2006 opposed the bipartisan, comprehensive bill that provided a pathway to citizenship for some, blamed labor unions for the collapse of political willpower for a new immigration measure.

“We do need a temporary worker program. But the labor unions in this country that — at least some of whom were willing to support that three years ago are no longer willing to do it,” Kyl (R-AZ) said on Fox News Sunday.

As TPM has reported, the votes hardly seem there for immigration reform anyway.

The closest Congress came to any comprehensive immigration reform was in 2006 when the Senate passed a bipartisan plan with 62-36. (It died in the House.) The strength of that Senate vote was due to 22 Republicans who voted in favor of it — and a number of them were either defeated or aren’t backing a similar bill today.

Key GOP “yes” votes on immigration still serving in the Senate are highly unlikely to be there beck next year. Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) lost his seat in a primary this summer, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) is running for governor and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has a tea party “RINO” target on her back.

Sunday’s appearances highlighted divisions between Republicans as well, with Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA) saying on ABC’s “This Week” that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is wrong to characterize all illegal immigrants as drug-trafficking criminals.

ABC’s Jake Tapper pointedly asked Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) how many Republicans are joining the 102 Democrats he said are “ready” to vote for a comprehensive bill. “Well, none,” Gutierrez said.

“I think, first, we should see what it is what agree on so then we can figure out the others,” Gutierrez said, but he went on to spar with Bilbray, illustrating how difficult it is to achieve political consensus on the issue.

And if Senate Democrats have an end game, it hasn’t surfaced yet beyond the informal talks Obama held with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)

As we’ve reported, Graham says there is no way immigration will get done this year.

On CBS, Holder made news by leaving open the possibility the federal government would bring a second lawsuit against Arizona’s new immigration law on grounds that it allows for racial profiling. He said that if in six months or a year from now there might be racial profiling. “And if that was the case, we would have the tools and we would bring suit on that basis,” he said.

The lawsuit has become another political football,which is one reason the administration put Holder, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Axelrod on the Sunday shows.

“We can’t have a patchwork of 50 states developing their own immigration laws,” Axelrod said on Fox News Sunday. He and Democrats appearing on shows stressed that border control has increased substantially over the last few years. Axelrod said Obama has sent more police and is attempting to secure the border using drones and helicopters.

“But no administration has been tougher on enforcement. No administration has gone after employers the way we have who have broken the law by hiring these workers,” Axelrod said.