Democrats Fight Back on Immigration

Normally, Republicans are the ones calling for amped-up border security. But with a $701-million bill Democrats pushed through the House last night, Republican senators may have to choose between seeming in cahoots with the Obama administration or weak on immigration.

Late yesterday night, after a Phoenix judge knocked down some of the most controversial parts of Arizona's stringent immigration law, the House passed a $701-million bill (PDF) beefing up border security. The money would go toward hiring 1,200 new Border Patrol agents and over 500 other customs and border security personnel, supporting local law enforcement, and expanding Department of Justice immigration enforcement programs.

The bill now shifts to the Senate, where it will face an interesting election-year future.

One tack for Republicans may be to claim that the bill does not do enough, proving that Democrats are not serious about immigration. Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the conservative-leaning Center for Immigration Studies, provided a preview of this approach.

"In general, it's not enough money for border security, and it could be allocated differently to get more bang for the buck," she said. Though she hadn't seen the final draft of the bill, previous funding requests gave her a sense of where Republicans might pounce:

There is definitely not enough money being put towards things like the immigration courts, so that more people can be processed for removal, no increase in detention space, no investment in worksite enforcement. There's not enough money to support local law enforcement agencies who want to help with border security. It's too little to really make a difference. The budget is the expression of lawmakers' true priorities, and it seems clear from this level of funding that this is not a priority.

Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the more liberal American Immigration Council, countered that for some conservatives, "it's never enough." Over the last seven years, Johnson said, the U.S. has quintupled its number of border agents and quadrupled its immigration enforcement budget -- "but the appetite for increasing immigration enforcement-only policy seems to be never-ending. I can only conclude that it's because constantly raising the bar on how much we need to spend and what constitutes secure borders at this point seems like an excuse for not doing anything else."

As midterms approach and the Arizona law gets more attention, lawmakers are being forced to take a stance on immigration that distinguishes them from the opposing party.

"There's no question that Arizona has driven people into camps," Johnson said. "They're looking for ways to show what side of this they're on. In an election year, the Republicans clearly want to show that the president's not doing enough and that Democrats aren't serious enough. My guess is they'll say this is either not enough money or money that's not being spent the right way."

Another strategy could be to fall back on the GOP's recent theme of out-of-control deficit spending. The Senate dropped an earlier request for border security funds from a war funding bill amidst Republican objections that the enforcement spending would add to the deficit. This complaint will surely resurface, though with the publicity surrounding the Arizona law, immigration is quickly catching up to the deficit in terms of what voters are worried about.

Johnson thinks that as the Senate prepares to consider the funding, Democrats have the political advantage.

"It's hard for people to vote no on border spending because then they'll get tainted as soft on border security," he said. "Saying that you voted against it because it wasn't paid for or because it didn't allocate it properly or because it wasn't enough, that's an essay, and the people against you will have a bumper sticker. In a war between essays and bumper stickers, bumper stickers always win."