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Immigration Pathway Still Looks Uphill

• November 17, 2008 • 7:37 PM

Even with Democrats controlling Congress, ImmigrationPAC’s goal of a pathway to immigration reform faces tough going.

A month before the Nov. 4 election, Miller-McCune published “Path to a Pathway,” which profiled a new political action committee, ImmigrationPAC.

The political action committee’s mission: to fund candidates for national office who would vote for a bill to create a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

The term “pathway” is shorthand for what the Democratic Party platform describes as a new system that would require illegal immigrants “to come out of the shadows and get right with the law … pay a fine, pay taxes, learn English and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens.” That is also essentially what the fabled bipartisan bill known as McCain-Kennedy had codified (along with numerous measures to tighten border security and crack down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants) before it failed for the last time in 2006 — and before Republican presidential candidate John McCain repudiated his own bill.

The PAC’s founder, Jose Cruz, said he tried to contribute to the McCain campaign — in exchange for a pledge to support pro-pathway legislation. “They just completely backed away from us,” Cruz said. So did others. In the end, after studying scores of races and candidates, ImmigrationPAC contributed to just five pro-pathway candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives. All happened to be Democrats, although the committee is officially bipartisan.

In this season of Democratic salience, however, only two of ImmigrationPAC’s picks won. Ironically, both were in the Southwest, home to the hottest immigration clashes in the land, as well as to large numbers of Latino voters who might be expected to favor a kinder, gentler approach to immigrants.

One of those victors was incumbent Gabrielle Giffords, who defeated Republican Tim Bee in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District in the state’s southeastern quadrant. The other winner was Martin Heinrich, who handily beat Republican Darren White for New Mexico’s open 1st District seat. Much like McCain, White and Bee took a secure-the-borders-first stance and eschewed talk of solutions for the millions of undocumented workers who’ve been toiling, paying taxes — and yes receiving welfare state benefits — in the United States for years.

ImmigrationPAC foundered in Illinois, where it targeted two races. In one, pro-pathway candidate Democrat Dan Seal lost to incumbent Republican Mark Kirk in the state’s 10th District, which includes Chicago’s northern suburbs. Still, Cruz spins a silver lining into the defeat. When the two candidates vied in 2006, Kirk injected anti-immigrant rhetoric into the contest. But not this year.

“He didn’t bring it up at all this time,” said Cruz, an evangelical pastor and president of a Chicago consulting firm specializing in Hispanic outreach. “It means that we’re moving away from this divisive rhetoric and we can actually bring forth something that is comprehensive, that’s ethical, that’s smart.”

Anti-immigrant sentiment remained on the surface in Illinois’ 6th District just west of Chicago, where another of ImmigrationPAC’s picks, Democrat Jill Morgenthaler, failed to oust incumbent Republican Peter Roskam. In September, the Roskam campaign started mailing out attack brochures suggesting that Morgenthaler favored “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. That attack was one reason ImmigrationPAC backed Morgenthaler, Cruz said.

“She said repeatedly, ‘I’m not for amnesty, I’m for an earned pathway to citizenship,’” he said. “She actually was using the strongest language: ‘I want to require the undocumented to come out of the shadows.’ We cannot give out these benefits out without making them do something to earn it.”

ImmigrationPAC was also disappointed in California’s 50th District north of San Diego, where incumbent Republican Brian Bilbray — a former anti-immigration lobbyist — beat Democrat Nick Leibham.

After spending $25,000 on its five candidates, Immigration PAC has $49,960 left to entice members of Congress to support pro-pathway legislation the next time it comes up in Congress, possibly in 2009. But a portion of it will be used to counter anti-immigrant mailings and the like in certain congressional districts, as a vote on the issue approaches, Cruz said. He offers just one example: “We can get out there and say, ‘Roskam would deport the mother of a soldier serving in Iraq.’”

With an 81-seat majority in the U.S. House and a pro-pathway president in the White House, Democrats should be able to pass a new version of McCain-Kennedy without much trouble. But in June 2007, the last time the bill came up in a Democrat-controlled Congress, 13 Democrats joined 40 Republicans to oppose it. (It hasn’t come up in the House since Democrats took control of it in 2006.)

In other words, some Democrats are still afraid to come out of the shadows. “I was surprised at how difficult it was to give out money,” Cruz said. “I had candidates who the moment you said ‘immigration,’ they wouldn’t want to talk to you.”

Kirk Nielsen
Kirk Nielsen is an independent journalist based in Miami Beach. For the past decade, he has tracked presidential and congressional candidates through the political swamps of southern Florida and written extensively on the persistent Cold War conundrum known as Cuban politics. His articles have also appeared in The Progressive, The Village Voice, and Poder magazine and on Salon.com. As a staff writer for Miami New Times, he and his colleagues won the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism for a series on poverty in glamorous greater Miami in 2002. In the 1990s, Nielsen filed radio and print reportage from all over the Caribbean region and southern United States for Monitor Radio and The Christian Science Monitor.

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