In a May 5 article, Associated Press staff writer Jon Sarche reported that the "immigration debate has split both parties." In fact, while congressional Democrats do disagree on some minor issues, they largely favor policies that would better secure U.S. borders and provide opportunities for illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.
In a May 5 article on Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman's efforts to unite his party on the issue of immigration, Associated Press staff writer Jon Sarche reported that the "immigration debate has split both parties." He further asserted: "Democrats differ on how to accomplish border security, while the GOP is trying to walk the line between businesses that need foreign workers and conservatives who want a crackdown." In fact, while congressional Democrats do disagree on some minor issues, they largely favor policies that would better secure U.S. borders and provide opportunities for illegal immigrants to earn citizenship -- the core principles of so-called "comprehensive immigration reform." By contrast, the Republican Party is clearly divided on the central question of whether to support comprehensive reform or focus solely on enforcement.
The split among conservative and moderate Republicans on immigration reform has garnered much attention in recent months, as a sampling of recent headlines attests:
- "Republican Split on Immigration Reflects Nation's Struggle" (The New York Times, 3/29/06)
- "A GOP faceoff over illegal immigration" (The Christian Science Monitor, 3/29/06)
- "Republicans Split on Immigration, Deficits" (Associated Press, 4/3/06)
- "Immigration Laws Divide GOP" (Associated Press, 4/5/06)
- "A Split on the Lines of Immigration: Arizona's McCain and Kyl Exemplify Division Among Republicans Nationwide" (The Washington Post, 4/5/06)
The fierce intraparty debate stems from the varying House and Senate approaches to the issue. In December 2005, the House Republicans put forward a bill that would impose criminal penalties for those aiding illegal immigrants, call for construction of a 700-mile-long fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and, most controversially, make unlawful presence in the U.S. a felony. The measure was celebrated by conservatives as a get-tough effort to the stem the tide of illegal immigrants into the United States. It passed on December 16 with heavy Republican support.
When the Senate took up the issue in March, conservatives -- overwhelmingly Republican -- in both chambers voiced their strong objections to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, modeled on a proposal put forward by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ). The bill would strengthen border-security efforts and provide a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. When the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the measure on March 27, conservative Republicans quickly branded it "amnesty." Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), a leading proponent of the House approach, declared, "No plan with amnesty and a massive increase in foreign workers will pass the House." Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Mel Martinez (R-FL) subsequently put forward a compromise proposal which would limit the number of illegal immigrants eligible for citizenship under the plan. After gaining bipartisan support, it, too, was assailed by supporters of the House approach. For instance, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said, "[W]hile the proposed compromise reflects progress in moving the Senate away from a wholesale amnesty, it remains fundamentally flawed."
But contrary to Sarche's suggestion that both parties are comparably divided on the issue, the Democrats have shown considerable unity on the central principles in question. All but 36 of the 202 House Democrats voted against the more punitive House bill. And while the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee split 4-6 on the comprehensive legislation, the committee's eight Democrats all supported it. Indeed, few -- if any -- Democrats have spoken out against either stronger border control or providing illegal immigrants the opportunity to become citizens.
While Sarche specifically characterized the Democrats as divided over "how to accomplish border security," he never provided any detail regarding the substance of those purported disagreements. Perhaps he was referring Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman Howard Dean's statement on April 19: "The first thing we want is tough border control. We have to do a much better job on our borders than George Bush has done. And then we can go to the policy disagreements about how to get it done." Conservatives quickly characterized Dean as breaking with the party's prior stance on immigration reform. But Dean said he had been misunderstood and that he was referring to border security as part of a comprehensive plan, as an April 22 Washington Post article reported:
Dean sought to clarify confusion over comments this week on immigration. He said that border security is a top priority for Democrats this year, but that it must be done in the context of comprehensive immigration reform. "It needs to be comprehensive reform, or there's not going to be any," he said.
Sarche could also have been referring to the disagreement that arose among certain Senate Democrats over procedural issues. On April 7, the same day the bipartisan agreement was reached on the compromise immigration reform bill, it stalled after Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid refused to allow conservative opponents the opportunity to offer amendments. Reid expressed concern that such amendments were part of an underhanded effort to gut the legislation. According to an April 8 New York Times article, Kennedy told Reid "they had the votes to defeat those proposals and protect the underlying bill" and was reportedly "furious" when Reid's tactics resulted in the measure being returned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. But again, this procedural dispute does not compare to the more substantive agreements taking place in the Republican ranks.
Sarche's suggestion of comparable divisions in the two parties echoed an April 22 article by AP staff writer Liz Sidoti -- "Democratic Party Splinters on Immigration" -- which similarly characterized the party as fractured over the issue. But the evidence Sidoti offered to establish these purported tensions stood in stark contrast to the disagreements among Republicans. The Democratic "splinters" Sidoti cited lay between those Democrats who support earned citizenship for illegal immigrants and those who support making a path to citizenship better available to all immigrants:
Members wrote at least two symbolic resolutions on immigration.
One co-sponsored by Dean urged the Bush administration to support "comprehensive immigration reform to include a path to legalization for immigrants already in the United States."
Dean told reporters that he supported legislation in the Senate sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz. It gives most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants a chance at eventual citizenship if they meet certain conditions.
The DNC's Hispanic Caucus crafted a different resolution that says all individuals in the United States -- regardless of whether they are in the country illegally -- should be able to seek to become a U.S. citizen.
"We believe that any immigrant -- any immigrant -- residing in this nation has a right -- a right -- to have access to the process allowing U.S. citizenship. No ifs. No buts," Alvaro Cifuentes, the head of the caucus, told the executive committee. "And, we feel that the underlying theme is that there is nothing more un-American than to be anti-immigrant."
At no point in the article did Sidoti highlight any disagreements over the specific issue of border security. To the contrary, she quoted party officials saying that Democrats -- unlike Republicans -- largely agree on the "basic principles":
But Democratic National Committee officials said the party is mostly unified when it comes to three basic principles on immigration reform -- secure borders, opportunities for earned citizenship for immigrants and policies that keep families together.
The differences, they said, are in the details.
"Everybody agrees on two or three things. Beyond that, it gets difficult," said Moses Mercado, the DNC's director of intergovernmental affairs. "It's the nuances."