Hot-button immigration issues mostly a 2010 campaign distraction

While serious discussion of immigration policy reform has been generally avoided for the past year, the politics of immigration have weaved their way through the health care debate as a pet topic on the right, spurring some of the most heated exchanges in blog comment threads, at town hall meetings and, of course, in a joint session of Congress in September, when South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson broke U.S. House decorum by shouting out “you lie” and waving a finger at President Obama for denying that national health care legislation would provide free coverage for illegal immigrants.

Denver pro-immigration rally 2006 (Staver: Flickr)
Denver pro-immigration rally 2006 (Staver: Flickr)

According to nonpartisan pollster Floyd Ciruli, however, illegal immigration merely rallies the base. He told The Colorado Independent that relative to other issues, immigration is a fairly stable policy topic. Politicians and voters know where they stand.

“Immigration holds a talk show audience, but it doesn’t move voters by any extent.” In the 2010 elections, immigration is not likely to be a big deal.

“Ask Republicans what the most important issue is, immigration will be third or fourth. It still has considerable bite for Republicans. But if you notice people who have tried to use it — [former U.S. Rep. Tom] Tancredo, when he ran for president, Beauprez when he was trying to get some advantage against Ritter — it really doesn’t seem to be a game changer.”

Pro-immigration primary stances

The top primary candidates in Colorado have laid down their stakes on the issue. Candidates can’t be expected to lay all their cards on the table in the primaries, she said, but when it comes to immigration, she doesn’t anticipate any surprises. The primaries are more about taking the pulse of party faithful, Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak told The Colorado Independent.

“We’re watching the Republican primaries to see if [voters] will continue to vote ultra-conservative by choosing [GOP gubernatorial candidate] Josh Penry or if they will instead choose a less conservative candidate such as [former U.S. Rep.] Scott McInnis.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and primary challenger Andrew Romanoff both support comprehensive immigration reform and paths for citizenship. They also agree that illegal immigration is something that must be controlled.

Bennet campaign manager Craig Hughes told The Colorado Independent that Bennet supports comprehensive immigration. The senator is sponsoring the DREAM Act, which provides a mechanism for undocumented children to gain citizenship.

“Sen. Bennet is a longtime supporter of a comprehensive approach that would clear the path to citizenship, especially for deserving undocumented students who were brought here as children.”

Romanoff’s record, however, may be called into question by Latino voters, Hughes said, pointing to Romanoff’s support of the special state legislative session in 2006 that produced a number of laws affecting illegal immigration here.

Although Romanoff’s campaign did not respond to calls for comment, Polly Bacca, Colorado Latino Forum co-chair, told The Colorado Independent that she doesn’t see the Romanoff campaign facing any real difficulties on the issue. On the contrary, she predicted that Romanoff would win the primary and walk away with the Senate seat. Romanoff, she said, is a strong supporter of comprehensive immigration reform and has developed a strong following in the Latino Community. Although Romanoff presided over the 2006 special session, Bacca said Latino voters know the full story.

“[Romanoff] kept the bad initiatives off the ballot during the special session. He really worked with [the Latino community ] to make sure we didn’t get negative legislation.”

In September, Jessie Ulibarri, a Latino Democratic advocate told The New York Times that Bennet likewise enjoys deep support among Latinos.

“Senator Bennet has told us that he is willing to lose an election over immigration reform. It is comforting to have a senator with that stance.”

Anti-illegal immigration primary stances

The GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton come down hard on illegal immigration.

In a discussion with The Colorado Independent, Buck’s campaign manager pointed to Buck’s record on the issue as district attorney and to the unequivocal position stated at the campaign website. Buck has called on lawmakers to tighten the borders and provide a guest-worker program to service business labor demands.

“I believe we can do that and still get serious about dealing effectively with the larger illegal immigration problem,” his site reads.

In a recent interview posted at the Square State blog, Buck reiterated his concern over loose boarder control and commented on his frustration that illegal aliens come to the U.S. and have children who are then considered citizens.

More compelling perhaps for political watchers, however, is the strong stance Buck took against presidential candidate John McCain last year as part of a PBS “News Hour” panel. Buck said McCain sold out America in the McCain-Kennedy Comprehensive Immigration bill.

“Amnesty to me is wrong, because it puts people that break the law ahead of the people that obey the law. And I think it’s a very serious moral issue that we need to grapple with. And I’m not sure I have the answer. It just seems wrong to me to put the illegal immigrant ahead of the person that’s done it the right way,” he said.

Norton has deep ties to the McCain camp. She was a leader of the McCain campaign in Colorado and many of the people at the heart of her Senate campaign are former McCain advisers and major donors. Yet, she seems to agree with Buck’s tougher tack on immigration. In a discussion with The Colorado Independent, Norton campaign spokeswoman Cinamon Watson hit all the same points.

“We have to first and foremost secure the borders and then we have to develop a temporary guest worker program that allows employers to verify workers and make sure that they are in the country legally and they are here temporarily.”

A hint at how intractable the stance is at this point came in response to a question on a so-called path to citizenship.

“You mean amnesty?” Watson asked, taken aback, declining to say more on the topic.

Poll numbers

According to an October 13 Rasmussen report on immigration, however, Americans by a 55 percent to 27 percent margin favor a policy that would welcome everyone except criminals, national security threats and welfare dependents. This even though a large percentage, 74 percent, thought the government was not doing enough to secure the borders and 56 percent felt that government policies encourage illegal immigration.

A May 2009 Benenson Strategy Group poll of 1,000 likely voters showed 68 percent of voters supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. That number included 62 percent of Republican respondents. Beyond that 71 percent of voters felt that illegal immigrants should become legal tax payers.

The numbers support pollster Ciruli’s deadpan assessment of the 2010 elections and, for all the carefully articulated positions and fiery stump speeches to come, the campaign managers agree.

“It’s really going to be about the economy,” Watson said.

Hughes agreed.

“There are really two dominant issues in Colorado and those are the economy and health care. Getting the economy moving again, freeing up the credit market and creating jobs is going to be a key issue for the voters of Colorado.”

Bacca said she felt comprehensive immigration reform would be “handled in the first part of next year, 2010.”

“Unless comprehensive immigration reform is not passed,” Bacca said, “immigration will not be a major issue in the 2010 general election.”

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