Post-DREAM, What’s the Next Immigration Battleground?

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The DREAM Act died in the Senate on Saturday morning when Democrats were unable to get enough votes to overcome a Republican filibuster. The vote was 55-41, meaning that supporters were five votes short. Few expected the legislation to pass, so why did Senator Harry Reid decide to bring it up in the first place? The rationale was essentially political: First, it was meant to show Latinos and immigration advocates that Democrats were willing to push for a tough vote on the issue. Obama’s enforcement-heavy approach to immigration has frustrated many, though it’s unclear whether failed action on DREAM restores Democratic credibility.

Secondly, the vote was supposed to show how far right the Republican Party has moved on immigration. Only Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and the soon-departing Bob Bennett (R-Utah) voted for the bill, though five Democrats also crossed party lines to vote against it. The vote is essentially a curtain-raiser for the newly empowered GOP, whose incoming leadership has vowed to pursue an immigration crackdown.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who’s slated to take a leadership role on immigration on the House Judiciary Committee, told the New York Times about some of his 2011 plans last week. “His priority as chairman would be to pass a bill he introduced last year that would also require the Internal Revenue Service to share information with the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration about the immigration status of workers,” writes the Times. “Mr. King said his measure would increase pressure on employers to fire unauthorized immigrant workers by increasing their cost.” King has also vowed to push for a bill on birthright citizenship, in addition to grilling top administration officials about Obama’s border enforcement tactics. That being said, it will be tough for King and the other immigration hawks to pass any legislation through the Democrat-controlled Senate—and top Republicans could end up tamping down their crusades as 2012 gets closer, for fear of alienating Latino voters even further.

Immigration advocates, for their part, have resigned themselves to focusing their next fight on the state level. As I reported last month, there’s a raging debate in many states over whether undocumented immigrant students should receive in-state tuition, financial aid, or admission to public universities:

While political gridlock is likely to continue in Washington, the university and student-led advocacy has helped advance a bill in California that would extend state financial aid to undocumented students…And a handful of conservative states are now moving to restrict undocumented immigrants’ access to public education. Georgia passed legislation denying in-state tuition to undocumented students, joining Arizona and South Carolina.

It’s unclear, though, how Washington Democrats will position themselves on immigration as 2012 gets closer. Certainly, they’ll try to call the Republicans out on their most extreme rhetoric and positions, but Obama will also be pressed to defend his border enforcement policies. In 2010, the Democrats had Arizona’s harsh immigration law to use as an unexpected rallying cry against anti-immigration Republicans—a cudgel that arguably helped them in states like Colorado and California. But Democrats might not have the same wedge issue two years from now, and a boldly pro-immigration stance might not help Obama in some of the states where he could have the most trouble.

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