Opinion: Columnists

Why immigration reform didn't happen in 2007

BY: Sean Higgins November 20, 2012 | 8:00 pm
WASHINGTON - JUNE 27: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) (L) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) laugh during an immigration reform rally and news conference on Capitol Hill June 27, 2006 in Washington, DC. When asked why the GOP House leadership was calling the Senate's version of the immigration reform legislation the "Reid-Kennedy" bill, McCain said it didn't matter. "They could call it a banana," he said. The National Immigration Forum hosted the conference with business, religious, union, conservative, and immigrant advocacy leaders to call for comprehensive immigration reform. Many who participated in the event said the planned hearings across the country by GOP members of the House is a stalling tactic used to turn the immigration issue into a political football. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Gridlock is Congress's default position, but every so often the planets align perfectly for legislation to pass. In 2007, that moment came for immigration reform.

There was a bipartisan bill by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., John McCain, R-Ariz., and others, Democrats controlled Congress, and President George W. Bush was all in favor. Despite this, nothing happened, and Congress hasn't tried seriously to reform the immigration laws since.

Now that immigration reform is back in the news, it is worth looking back at what exactly happened in that last failed effort.

Kennedy and McCain had tried to get a bill going in 2005 and 2006 without much success. Most Republicans were automatically opposed to anything that smacked of amnesty -- like the bill's pathway to legalization for existing immigrants. But in 2007, the Democrats regained control of the House. That meant -- in theory, anyway -- the main obstacle was a GOP Senate filibuster. But a deal arose with the support of several moderate and even conservative Republicans, such as Arizona's Jon Kyl.

It was at this point that many on the Left began to step away. Frank Sharry, who was then executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told The Washington Examiner that although conservative opposition was the biggest stumbling block, there were also "divisions on the Left."

"There was little mobilization in support of the bill," Sharry said. Organized labor was split. The Service Employees International Union favored a deal. But the larger AFL-CIO opposed guest-worker programs, which were expanded in the bill to win Big Business and GOP support. More strikingly, it lost the support of several pro-immigration groups, such as the League of United Latin American Citizens.

"LULAC cannot support a bill that will separate families and lead to the exploitation of immigrant workers," said Executive Director Brent Wilkes in a May 2007 statement. In a June 2007, the American Immigration Lawyers Association said it "cannot support enactment of the Senate bill in its current form," citing no fewer than six major problems.

Bob Sakaniwa, a lobbyist with AILA, told me this week that that didn't mean that his group opposed the bill. But when I asked how and whether his group had urged senators to vote on ending the filibuster, he said, "My memory is hazy on this point."

LULAC's Wilkes told me they did ultimately back ending the filibuster. But Sharry said the groups' stances caused confusion, with some Democrats thinking the pro-immigration lobby was now opposed.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers began pushing for amendments that would alienate what Republican support the bill's had. Then-Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., got one such amendment adopted to end a temporary worker program.

Among the amendment's backers was then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a former McCain staffer Mark Salter wrote last year. "I never saw him engage in any discussion concerned with building a majority in favor of the legislation." Instead, Obama parroted the AFL-CIO's demands, which were certain to prevent immigration reform from passing. The bill failed a series of cloture votes in June of 2007. A final effort on June 28 received only 46 votes, 14 short of the votes needed to invoke cloture. Twelve Republicans voted with most Democrats to end cloture. Sixteen Democrats voted with most Republicans to kill the reform. Many believe the vote was closer than that, because some senators switched their votes when it was clear the bill would fail.

The charitable explanation is that those Democrats had serious reservations about the bill. To believe that, you would have to believe that Ted Kennedy was selling them out.

A less charitable interpretation is that Democrats cared far less about immigration reform than they did about using the issue to improve their margins with Hispanic voters. If you believe that, it's easy to see how it would have been an own-goal for them to pass reform and let Republicans -- especially George W. Bush -- take part of the credit. As LULAC's Wilkes put it, "There may have been some factor there in which Democratic members thought that they'd rather do this under a Democratic administration."

Blame Democrats all you like, but this story is also a testament to how badly the GOP has handled the immigration issue. They have taken most of the blame for the failure to pass legislation that only needed a few more Democratic votes.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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