Congressional Quarterly TODAY PRINT EDITION
March 31, 2008 – 9:06 p.m.
Freshman Democrats Feel Heat on Immigration
By Karoun Demirjian, CQ Staff
MONACA, Pa.— As Rep. Jason Altmire walked into the Beaver County Sportsmens Conservation League Awards Dinner at the Monaca Turners lodge, he was pretty sure that between the handshakes and the backslaps someone might ask him about immigration.
“I hear about it everywhere I go,” the freshman Democrat said of his talks with constituents in western Pennsylvania’s 4th District. “People want to see Congress move a bill.”
Across the state, fellow Democratic freshman Christopher Carney faces similar concerns from his constituents in the 10th District.
“People say, ‘We don’t want any kind of amnesty,’ ” Carney said. “People want us to control the process. . . . It’s a real concern here.”
When it comes to immigration, constituents like these hold the kind of influence that Washington lobbyists — and perhaps Democratic leaders — only dream of.
Even though they have relatively few foreign-born residents, districts like Pennsylvania’s 4th and 10th are the emerging battlegrounds of immigration, and their representatives are the prime targets of Republican efforts to push get-tough, enforcement-first approaches through the House.
The future of threatened first-term Democrats such as Altmire and Carney may hang in the balance. And Republicans hope that what those lawmakers heard back home during the spring recess improves the chances that some sort of get-tough legislation moves forward this spring.
At issue in the House are two GOP-initiated discharge petitions — one to force floor debate and a vote on an enforcement-only measure by Rep. Heath Shuler , D-N.C., and another, expected to be filed Tuesday, on a bill by Rep. Bart Stupak , D-Mich., to increase the number of H-2B visas for seasonal workers.
Each petition must garner 218 signatures to be successful — and each of the bills has enough Democratic cosponsors to theoretically clear the hurdle. But signing those discharge petitions is no small commitment for first-term Democrats, who are being pressured not to break with party leadership while at the same time feeling the need to satisfy constituents — and deflect GOP attacks — by talking tough on immigration.
Carney and eight other Democrats signed the discharge petition on Shuler’s bill before leaving for the two-week recess. Altmire, and the majority of the bill’s Democratic cosponsors, didn’t sign — and challengers have tried to make that an issue.
“They talk a good game and they say they support things, but don’t do anything to make sure anything happens,” said Melissa Hart, who lost her seat in Congress to Altmire in 2006 and is challenging him in 2008. “He’s all talk and no action. He’s trying to have it both ways.”
Hart’s criticism of Altmire directly reflects talking points that were circulated during the recess by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) in rural districts represented by first-term Democrats in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. Several of those seats — such as the ones held by Kirsten Gillibrand of New York’s 20th District and Zack Space of Ohio’s 18th – have been listed as NRCC targets for 2008.
In each of those areas, a changing economy has heightened concerns about illegal immigration.
“You have immigration serving as a way to talk about two things. One is the economy, and the idea that somehow these immigrants coming into the area would be taking jobs and employment away,” said David Harris, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh. “Second, there’s a feeling that there’s a cultural transformation happening, and people begin to get uncomfortable when they see the world changing around them.”
In Aliquippa, a portion of Altmire’s district north of Pittsburgh on the banks of the Ohio River, a summertime roundup of illegal immigrants laying fiber-optic cable for Verizon Inc. brought the immigration debate too close to home for some longtime residents — in an area where less than 2 percent of the population is foreign-born.
“These guys are taking people’s jobs here,” said John DiCioccio, a retired pipe fitter. “It comes down to making money — they can get those guys to work for half-price or a third of the price; they’re going to hire them.”
In Sayre, part of Carney’s district just across the border with New York, Police Chief Larry Hurley has staged at least three impromptu raids on undocumented workers in the past three years — unprecedented in a town of fewer than 6,000, he says, and requiring the kind of policing he and his 10 officers don’t have the resources to conduct.
“I see money pouring into the cities, but we’re up against the same type of criminal activity, and we get nothing,” he said. “I try to stay out of politics. But I don’t think I’m the only person in law enforcement in small towns in rural areas having to deal with this trend.”
For constituents like these, discussion of discharge petitions remains a bit too technical a topic for meet-and-greet get-togethers. Because last year’s debate over comprehensive immigration reform took place mostly in the Senate, there’s not much of a House voting record to point to when it comes to immigration, and the competition has been mostly a war of words.
Several of the targeted freshman Democrats already espouse a hard-line stance on immigration, so what has emerged is a game of rhetorical one-upsmanship. Both the incumbent and the challenger try to portray themselves as the champion of ever-tougher border and workplace enforcement.
For incumbents such as Altmire, though, there is an additional challenge: the need at some point to match rhetoric with action. Signing a discharge petition on the Shuler bill might accomplish that, but Altmire has nevertheless decided against it, because he doesn’t trust Republicans— who, as the filers of the petition, would assume control over floor debate on the bill if they discharge it — to be as enforcement-minded as they profess.
“Every time the Republicans have had the chance to deal with the issue, they bring amnesty to the table,” he said. “For me, it’s very simple: I want to see [Shuler’s bill] on the floor, I want to see us address immigration in a way that secures the border. . . . I’ve been clear with my position, and I think the people are happy with where I am.”
Nonetheless, the struggle to be the toughest when it comes to immigration may leave these freshman Democrats in a ticklish position.
Of course, not every constituent has the same concerns.
Keith Eckel, a fourth-generation farmer from Clarks Summit, Pa., and a lifelong conservative Republican, is at odds with his party’s push to harden the bottom line on the debate. Last week, he decided to stop growing the tomatoes that he’s been selling up and down the East Coast since 1949 because Congress has failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
“In our business, we’re totally dependent on seasonal farm workers of basically Hispanic descent to harvest our crops,” he said. “I’ve been wrestling with this decision for the past two years, hoping that Congress would move on the immigration reform issue. This year it just became apparent that we were not going to have enough people to harvest the crop.”
Carney, Altmire and their challengers have expressed an interest in legislation on the seasonal H-2B visa shortage as a means of addressing the concerns of farmers and contractors in their districts who rely on immigrant labor.
For employers like these, it’s a short-term, bottom-line problem. But solving it may be a tall order when the only acceptable political options seem to be getting tough or getting tougher.
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