Immigration fight puts both parties at risk

WASHINGTON Wed Apr 28, 2010 8:10am EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - From the Arizona border to the halls of Congress, the sudden reemergence of the divisive issue of immigration reform poses significant risks for both parties heading into November's congressional elections.

Republican efforts to regain lost ground with Hispanics, the country's biggest and fastest-growing minority, could suffer fatal blows from a possible Senate debate and a harsh immigration crackdown in Arizona, passed by Republican legislators and signed by a Republican governor.

But President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats face their own challenges in countering the Arizona law and mustering support for an immigration overhaul certain to further inflame conservatives already enraged by Obama's spending and healthcare initiatives.

"No matter how many ways you look at this, there are risks for both parties," said Steven Schier, a political analyst at Carleton College in Minnesota. "Immigration policy is a complicated issue that cuts in both directions."

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who faces a difficult re-election campaign in his home state of Nevada, says Democrats will consider taking up an immigration overhaul once it finishes work on financial regulatory reform.

With Democrats facing big potential losses in November, an immigration bill that includes a path to citizenship for many of the country's 11 million illegal immigrants could help cement strong Hispanic support in key Senate races in Colorado, California and Reid's Nevada.

Republicans said Reid's interest in pushing immigration reform was a cynical effort at self-preservation. But it could mean trouble for Democrats in the House of Representatives, where dozens of Democrats in Republican-leaning districts would be on the spot again after tough votes on healthcare reform and spending.

"Democrats in those swing districts would have to walk the plank, and that plank is getting pretty worn out," said Republican consultant Rich Galen. "At some point those Democrats are going to get tired of sticking their necks out. I don't think it happens."

'ANOTHER LOG ON THE FIRE'

Schier said there were as many as 60 House Democrats in swing districts who would be at risk in a renewed debate on immigration reform.

"It's another log on the fire for the Tea Party," he said of the conservative grass-roots group. "It will excite conservatives and Republicans in those districts."

But Republicans also could face long-term political danger by opposing immigration reform and backing the Arizona law, which Hispanic groups have decried as a drastic violation of civil rights.

The law requires police to determine if people are in the country legally and gives them free rein to question them, raising fears among Hispanics of racial profiling.

"Immigration is the litmus test issue for the Hispanic community," said Antonio Gonzalez, who heads the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

"For Hispanics, Arizona is Alabama and Maricopa County is Selma," he said, drawing parallels to the black civil rights protests of the 1960s.

Republicans courted Hispanics for years under President George W. Bush, peaking in 2004 when he won more than 40 percent of their votes. But after Republicans helped kill immigration reform in Congress, Hispanics flocked to Obama in the 2008 election.

Obama won the vote of Hispanics, a socially conservative bloc who cast more than 7 percent of the presidential vote, by a margin of more than two-to-one over Republican John McCain. Hispanics were credited with fueling his win in New Mexico and helping in Nevada, Colorado and elsewhere.

"Republicans are playing with fire in terms of their long-term viability if they continue to play to the most extreme parts of their party," Democratic consultant Phil Singer said.

"They run the risk of alienating a vibrant and growing part of the electorate permanently," he said.

But Gonzalez said some Hispanics were disappointed in Obama's performance on immigration and were waiting to see how Obama would fight back against the Arizona law.

"It's creating tremendous pressure on Obama," he said of the Arizona law. "In the Latino community, there is a sense that people we thought were our allies haven't come through. Obama hasn't flexed his muscles for immigration reform."

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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