Will the Boycotts Hurt Immigration Reform?

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A protestor holds an American flag during a rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Atlanta, Monday

Congressional strategists in both parties say the boycotts and work stoppages across the country Monday are likely to hurt chances of persuading conservative lawmakers to go along with an immigration bill this year. Key aides still hold out hope for sending one to President Bush's desk before midterm elections, but were shaking their heads as they watched television coverage of small businesses that had to shut down and suburban work sites that were empty because of a national demonstration that proponents call a "Day Without Immigrants."

The size of the pro-immigrant marches that swept the country earlier this spring — fueled primarily by Spanish-language radio stations, Catholic organizers and liberal activists — stunned lawmakers and caused several Senators who had been on the sidelines to begin working for some compromise that would both tighten borders and give some hope for illegal workers who are already in the United States. But a quick survey of Capitol Hill Monday showed that the new round of events, coordinated by unions and civil-rights groups on behalf of illegal immigrants, may be counterproductive.

"The boycotts and work stoppages make it an issue that is too hot to handle for some," said one Hill aide. "Rational arguments about how to best proceed on policy fall victim to emotional arguments about perception, and then it becomes more difficult to reach a consensus in that kind of environment." More bluntly, a top Senate Republican strategist said: "All together, they are unhelpful."

This was a rare point of agreement for the two parties, which have been wrangling over an immigration bill in an atmosphere of mistrust. Democrats remain worried that the GOP is trying to sabotage a compromise in order to provide a campaign issue and portray the opposition as intransigent, as they did to great effect with homeland security in 2002. A Democratic Senate aide said that Democrats on Capitol Hill "are concerned that this will stir up the right-wing opponents and kook fringe while accomplishing very little," creating "a side issue" that distracts from the goal of getting a good bill.

House Republicans are most focused on stronger border security, which the White House wants along with a temporary worker program for illegal immigrants already in the country. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have been debating a way to put illegal residents on a path to citizenship. Asked today about the possibility of a backlash from the job actions, outgoing White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said: "This is a difficult and emotional issue that the President has said numerous times that we should all work together to elevate the debate and reduce some of the charged rhetoric that sometimes comes with an issue like this."

The Senate Republican strategist said the best case for getting a bill ready for Bush would be before the August congressional recess. "But that requires a lot of things to fall in place, including continued and accelerating presidential and Administration involvement as well as an evolution of position not just amongst House leaders but a fair number of rank and file," the strategist said.

President Bush is continuing to emphasize the dual points of maintaining both a welcoming and a law-abiding country, but some Republican officials fret that White House officials are not being insistent enough about getting a bill passed in the face of conservative resistance. "They're governing against their base, so they've got to tap dance very carefully," the strategist said. "They've left the impression that once the issue is joined in conference, they'll be much crisper, much clearer about what they want."

One Senate official working hard for an immigration bill said the massive demonstrations by largely Hispanic participants earlier this spring "helped with some members" — those not from safe districts, those who understand the broader political picture and take a long view — and hurt among some in safe districts. But "the work stoppage just hurts the effort," this official added. So it looks like, while the organizers may succeed at generating political pressure on Congress to keep working on a new immigration law, they may also make it harder for lawmakers to finish the job.