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Court ruling unlikely to change politics of immigration

The equation spelling gridlock in Congress remains unchanged: The comprehensive overhaul promoted by Obama — and Bush — lacks any GOP support in the Senate, and therefore cannot pass.

July 28, 2010|By Ken Dilanian and Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — A federal judge's rejection of the most controversial elements of Arizona's immigration law is unlikely to change the entrenched immigration politics in Washington, where not a single Republican senator supports the overhaul that many experts say is needed to fix what President Obama calls a "fundamentally broken" system.

The contours of the problem are no mystery: An estimated 11 million illegal immigrants live in the U.S., and more are drawn every day by untold numbers of jobs — from dishwasher to strawberry picker — that Americans find unattractive. Deporting them all is impossible, and without a tamper-proof national ID card, there is no sure way to prevent businesses from hiring them.

There also is little hope of rendering a 2,000-mile border with Mexico impenetrable to illicit crossers as long as there is economic opportunity on the U.S. side.

To upend this troubled reality, the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has proposed "comprehensive immigration reform" that seeks a grand compromise: combine tough border and workplace enforcement with a process to legalize the 11 million. The Senate sponsor, Democrat Charles E. Schumer of New York, also has proposed a national biometric ID card intended to make it difficult to hire illegal immigrants, and a guest-worker program to allow low-skilled workers to enter the U.S. temporarily and legally.

Republicans, even those who backed President George W. Bush's failed effort in 2007, have been unwilling to support the measure, meaning it can't pass the Senate's 60-vote threshold. They respond with a mantra: Secure the border first. There can be no talk of "amnesty," they say, until the flow of illegal immigrants is stanched.

That is not realistic, Democrats and many independent experts say. If the U.S. military couldn't secure the borders of Iraq from militants crossing from Syria and Iran, they say, it is unlikely that the Border Patrol or the National Guard can stop every hungry worker or kilo of cocaine moving out of Mexico.

"Unless and until Washington steps up and enacts a coherent, comprehensive and national immigration policy, we will continue to see this debate roil local and state politics from coast to coast," said Frank Sherry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration rights group. "It can only be solved by Congress and the administration. Comprehensive immigration reform that combines targeted enforcement with a legal workforce is what the American people want."

Yet many Americans reject that premise. They believe that what's needed is tougher enforcement, and they argue that the federal government simply lacks the will.

"Instead of wasting taxpayer resources filing a lawsuit against Arizona and complaining that the law would be burdensome, the Obama administration should have focused its efforts on working with Congress to provide the necessary resources to support the state in its efforts to act where the federal government has failed to take responsibility," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who once supported an immigration policy overhaul but now, facing a tough challenge in the Republican primary, backs the law in his home state.

Recognizing the desire for tougher enforcement, Obama dispatched 1,200 National Guard troops to the area. The administration also is on track to deport 400,000 illegal immigrants this year, the most in U.S. history. Authorities say their top priority is to remove criminals and those who have been previously deported.

"Over the past 18 months, this administration has dedicated unprecedented resources to secure the border," Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said in a statement responding to the court decision. "DHS will enforce federal immigration laws in Arizona and around the country in smart, effective ways that focus our resources on criminal aliens who pose a public safety threat and employers who knowingly hire illegal labor, as well as continue to secure our border."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has accused Republicans of demagoguery.

"Their position has evolved to be, 'We don't even want to talk about immigration reform unless you secure — read: seal — the border,' " she said in an interview last month. "And the definition of what securing the border means keeps changing, and that then becomes a reason not to address the real underlying issue, which is immigration reform."

The GOP sees it differently. But both sides agree on the state of play: political gridlock.

"Nothing's going to happen before the election," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), though he held out hope for some action in a lame-duck, postelection legislative session.

"In this atmosphere I don't see anything going anywhere," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

ken.dilanian@latimes.com

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

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