- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2011

President Obama is pledging border security and pleading for help from Republicans as he steps up his campaign to pass an immigration reform bill, but new polling suggests the rift within his own party is actually deeper than within the GOP on the issue.

The data from the Pew Center for the People and the Press’ massive look at political parties, released last week, found that the gap between the ends of the Democratic coalition on favoring stricter enforcement and on legalization is twice as large as the gap between hard-line Republicans and their more libertarian-leaning cohorts.

Mr. Obama will visit the border on Tuesday and deliver an immigration speech in El Paso, Texas, as the latest step in his push for action. But he is increasingly running up against some on his left flank who say he can take steps right now, without Congress, to halt deportations - a move immigrant-rights advocates say Hispanic voters will need to see before the next election.

“The debate over whether the president has powers under existing law to provide relief from deportation for certain immigrants is over. He does,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat and a key voice for immigrant rights in Congress. “The question is how broadly and how generously he will use those powers. That is what I will be listening for.”

Hispanic groups say the president promised them during the 2008 campaign that he would work for an immigration bill during his first year in office, but that failed to happen as he focused instead on the economic stimulus and health care.

Now, though, the president is trying to make up for lost time.

In recent weeks, he has held meetings at the White House with nationally prominent politicians such as New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; Hispanic entertainers, including Eva Longoria; and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Those meetings have drawn the ire of Republicans, who said they are one-sided and not likely to produce the bipartisan cooperation that the president says will be needed to pass a bill.

The Pew survey data on political parties indicates that a broad majority of Americans, from both parties, want stiffer immigration enforcement, but also want illegal immigrants to be granted a path to citizenship as long as they pay fines and show they are holding a job.

Still, while 94 percent of self-identified liberals wanted a path to citizenship, just 61 percent of so-called “hard-pressed” Democrats did. That is about twice the gap between conservatives and libertarians in the GOP’s coalition. On enforcement, the gap was just as stark: Just 55 percent of liberals wanted to continue the crackdown, while 88 percent of hard-pressed Democrats did, compared with a 7 point gap between main street Republicans and conservatives on the GOP’s side.

Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter limits on immigration, said the proof that Democrats are divided can be found in the fact that despite holding huge numerical advantages, they didn’t try to bring a legalization bill to the floor in the last Congress until the lame-duck session, when it was easy for Republicans to block it.

Mr. Camarota said the difference between the two parties is largely a matter of perception, fueled by the stances of party leaders.

“It’s hard to think of anybody prominent in the Democratic Party who doesn’t favor the amnesty approach, where in the Republican Party you get leaders all over the place. George W. Bush was where Obama is, for example,” he said. “What this means is, it gives the superficial appearance that one party is more united than the other, and when it actually comes time to vote in Congress it doesn’t play out that way.”

Mr. Obama says there used to be a bigger consensus on the issue when he was in the Senate, including in 2006 when the Republican-led chamber with President Bush’s backing, passed a legalization bill. But since then, the GOP’s backing in Congress has fallen off.

Facing that, the president hopes to rally outside groups to build pressure on both parties, but the GOP in particular.

“There was political opposition to comprehensive immigration reform, including from some places where there used to be political support. We are endeavoring to change that dynamic by rallying public support, by raising public awareness about the need for comprehensive immigration reform,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday in previewing the trip to El Paso.

Mr. Obama has previously ruled out taking unilateral action to halt deportations of broad classes of illegal immigrants, such as students or young adults who would be eligible for legal status under the Dream Act, which has yet to pass Congress.

But he told the Hispanic lawmakers last week that he would reconsider their request.

Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, who worked on immigration issues in the Bush administration, said the president is losing support among Hispanics because he hasn’t made good on his promises. Mr. Aguilar said that Mr. Obama polled at nearly 75 percent among Hispanics after his election, but that has now dropped to below 50 percent.

“It’s going to require more from the president to get Latinos to actually believe in him with regard to immigration,” Mr. Aguilar said.

He said he expects Mr. Obama to continue making a push for legislation while blaming the GOP for not negotiating.

“This is pure politics in the most crass way of doing it,” Mr. Aguilar said.

Mr. Obama voted for immigration bills when he was in the Senate in 2006 and 2007, but has yet to offer a specific legislative plan as president for what he wants to see Congress pass.

The key questions are fourfold: What further action needs to be taken on border security; how should interior enforcement be stepped up; what requirements will illegal immigrants have to meet in order to get on a path to citizenship; and will there be a guest-worker program for future workers, and will they also have access to citizenship.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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