Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, an architect of the Democratic campaign that regained control of the House last year, says his party will not attempt comprehensive immigration reform until at least the second term of a prospective Democratic president.
The congressman’s statement was reported by a Hispanic activist and confirmed by Mr. Emanuel. “Congressman Rahm Emanuel said to me two weeks ago, there is no way this legislation is happening in the Democratic House, in the Democratic Senate, in the Democratic presidency, in the first term,” Juan Salgado, board chairman of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, told the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) at its annual convention last weekend.
Through a spokesman, Mr. Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, blamed Republicans for botching this year’s debate and said that makes it tougher for Democrats to return to the issue.
“Congressman Emanuel has worked hard to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality and that work continues,” said Nick Papas, Mr. Emanuel’s spokesman. “However, President Bush and congressional Republicans’ failure on this critical matter has set back efforts to enact real reform.”
Mr. Emanuel’s assessment of the political realities discouraged Hispanics working for immigration reform now.
“I was caught off-guard by the statement,” Mr. Salgado said in an interview. “I interpret his comments as a lack of courage on what they know is right. Listen, we’re here at the NCLR conference, and what it’s going to take is not the attitude of Rahm Emanuel, if this is a second-term issue. What it’s going to take is boldness by the president.”
La Raza delegates at the Miami convention looked to the Democratic presidential field, hosting both Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois. During the question-and-answer session with Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Salgado related his exchange with Mr. Emanuel and asked whether if elected she would make the legislation a first-term issue.
Mrs. Clinton said she wouldn’t predict enactment, but promised “my best efforts.” Speaking after her, Mr. Obama said “in my first term, we will make this a priority and get this done.”
Mr. Salgado said Mr. Obama set the right tone. “The Democratic Party has to have the attitude that Obama has. You can’t walk into it with the attitude Emanuel has.”
Mr. Emanuel’s remark underscored how difficult the politics of immigration is for both parties. Sixteen Democrats joined 37 Republicans to filibuster President Bush’s immigration bill. Their 53 votes against the bill marked a majority of the Senate, considerably more than the 41 votes needed for a successful filibuster.
The Senate bill promised tighter border security and strengthened prosecution of employers of illegal aliens in exchange for a guest-worker program for future workers and a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens already in the U.S. When it failed, House Democrats said they would not take up comprehensive reform at all this year.
Immigration advocates privately identified Mr. Emanuel as an obstacle, criticizing his judgment that the issue would be painful for Democrats. Several such advocates tried to prevent his speaking last year at a march in Chicago. CounterPunch, a newsletter, reported that Mr. Salgado, an organizer of the march, argued for Mr. Emanuel to speak.
Mr. Emanuel’s voting record on immigration puts him firmly on the side of Hispanic activists. He voted against the House’s 2005 bill, which would have made illegal entry into the country a felony, and he is a co-sponsor of the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act, the House bill that includes a path to citizenship, backed by many major Hispanic and immigrant rights groups.
Sponsoring that bill puts him ahead of other Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina. They have not signed as sponsors.