Reluctant Dems on Immigration Reform

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Chip Somodevilla /Getty

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler speaks about immigration reform during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol May 8, 2007 in Washington, D.C.

Congressman Heath Shuler was the odd man out at a press conference last month rallying opposition to then not-yet-finalized Senate immigration bill — the other seven legislators facing the media that day were all Republicans. But the freshman North Carolina Democrat, one of only six members of his party in the 104-member House Immigration Reform Caucus, didn't mind being the lone Democrat on that panel: Elected with just 54 percent of the vote in 2006, his seat is a major Republican target in 2008, and the No. 1 issue he hears about when he goes home is immigration.

"I'm not here to represent no party," Shuler, a former Washington Redskins football star, said in an interview Tuesday. "I'm here to represent the people of the Eleventh Congressional District."

Immigration "is the most talked about issue in my district," Shuler added. "And the worst thing we could do is not listen to the people who got us here. And you certainly can't turn your back."

The Senate is expected to pass immigration legislation before the July 4 recess, and the House plans to pick up the issue next month. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is considering breaking up the Senate measure into smaller pieces of legislation, omitting one major component — the path to citizenship the senators propose to offer the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S.

The Senate measure immediately grants illegal aliens a temporary visa, and then, after two years, the possibility of qualifying for a so-called Z-visa, which gives them eight years to fulfill a series of hurdles (including medical and background checks, English and civics classes, $1,500 in fines and — for heads of households — a return trip to their country of origin to symbolically reenter the country legally) before they can apply for green-card permanent resident status. Green card holders can apply for citizenship after five years.

Offering a path from illegal to legal immigrant status is the issue is that defeated President George W. Bush's immigration reform plan in last year's G.O.P.-controlled Congress. House Republicans, and moderate Democrats, balked at granting any kind of "amnesty" — no matter how many tests the bill creates to make it "earned" citizenship.

Even with a Democratic majority of 233-202, the House still poses the biggest threat to the immigration bill, in part because many of the seats gained by the Democrats are in conservative areas such as Shuler's Ashville district.

"I truly feel that this freshman class is unique in that they truly know that they are here because the people of their district have spoken, and when they have spoken we must listen," Shuler said.

Shuler has joined at least six other freshmen in opposing any legislation that includes a path to citizenship, which is why Pelosi told Bush in January that she will need at least 70 Republican votes to pass the measure.

In order to provide more cover for moderate Democrats, Pelosi is considering separate passage for two other pieces of the bill: a guest worker program, and the provisions beefing up border security. This gives representatives like Shuler the opportunity to vote for border security, which has broad support. The Senate legislation would double the border patrol, and provides billions in funding for additional fencing and border technology. It would also start the guest worker program — which would grant 400,000 two-year visas to workers looking for U.S. employment — only after all of the border security fixes have been implemented.

If Pelosi opts for this route, the Senate would put the path to citizenship back in conference, allowing the House to hold only one vote on so-called "amnesty" provision. And Speaker Pelosi will certainly have her work cut out for her in coaxing the Blue Dogs (as the moderate Democratic coalition in the House dubs itself) into voting for the bill.

"Are you here representing your leadership?" a reporter asked Shuler at the May 8 press conference.

"They know I'm an independent thinker," Shuler replied. "This is an issue that Democrats and Republicans should stand together on... We cannot, we must not, and we should not reward those who have broken the law."

Clearly, Shuler is one Blue Dog Pelosi has already lost. Her challenge now will be to keep as many of Shuler's classmates and their colleagues on board will the bill if immigration reform has any shot of passing this year.