WASHINGTON — The scenes couldn’t have been more different: on Tuesday two white, retiring Republican senators stood before the press to unveil their scaled back version of Dream Act legislation, while the next day 23 Latino senators and congressmen — all Democrats — triumphantly gathered to unveil their demands for sweeping immigration reforms.
Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Jon Kyl touted their bill, which would provide legalized status to children who were brought to the country illegally, as a way to begin “the conversation” on immigration reform.
Wednesday’s Congressional Hispanic Caucus even, by contrast, was a warning to both parties that Latino lawmakers are coming for their spoils of electoral war.
The comprehensive reform principles they laid out are “the consensus of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a declaration” of what they expect Congress to take up when lawmakers return to Washington in January, incoming CHC Chairman Luis Gutierrez bluntly warned.
“’Next’ [year] isn’t good enough. ‘Next’ won’t be part of the vocabulary,” he added.
November’s election, and the impact Latino voters had on it, have resulted in a sea change in Washington. Long viewed as a political third-rail issue, particularly for Republicans, immigration reform activists suddenly find themselves front and center on everyone’s agenda.
“We used to be the unwanted party crashers. We made the other party goers uncomfortable … and all of a sudden, we are the bell of the ball. And we’re here to say, ‘it’s time to start the dance,’” Guiterrez said.
Sen. Bob Menendez argued November’s election was “profoundly clear … the first order of business in response should be comprehensive immigration reform.”
“This election as a mandate for immigration reform that includes an earned pathway to citizenship,” he added, warning that Latinos “expect [President Obama] will put political capital on the table to make this happen.”
Republicans have clearly seen the winds shifting — the House later this week will vote on legislation aimed at increasing visas for certain types of workers, and the Kyl-Hutchison bill appears to be an earnest attempt by the two veteran border-state members to try and kick start bipartisan talks on the issue.
“I think there’s recognition of what this election meant. For Latinos in this country this is the civil rights issue of our time,” Menendez said.
Indeed, more Republicans are beginning to warm to the notion of comprehensive reform, and bipartisan negotiations have quietly begun in both chambers.
Still, the bulk of Republicans are, at least for now, resisting the notion of comprehensive reform, something that Latino community leaders and Democrats are increasingly adamant about.
Gutierrez noted that when CHC initially agreed to back the measure before the House, it meant abandoning “a decade old principle of this caucus, [that] we won’t deal piece-meal.”
Democrats, he argued, had hoped the bill would include protections for family members covered by the bill, most of which were ultimately not included.
As a result, the CHC is now actively opposing the bill. “It’s almost as though they didn’t hear the call of voters on election day,” Gutierrez argued.