Will Obama's Immigration Focus Hurt Democrats?

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Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform on July 1, 2010, at American University in Washington

Back in 2007, when Rahm Emanuel was in charge of electing Democrats to the House, he famously marveled at how immigration reform had overtaken Social Security as "the third rail of American politics." Emanuel wasn't the only Democrat who looked at President George W. Bush's failed attempts to push through reform as a giant gift — in the form of the Latino vote — to the Democratic Party. All of the progress Bush had made with Latino voters in 2004 was wiped out by Republican opposition to what critics dubbed an "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants, and that trend continued in 2008, when Latinos supported Obama over McCain by a 35-point margin. But as the Obama White House has tried in recent weeks to show that it is serious about immigration reform, it is fast discovering that third rails harm whoever touches them, Republican or Democrat.

This time around, it's not the Latino vote that's most at stake. Instead, western Democrats — egged on by rather large swaths of their moderate white base — are growing increasingly nervous at the Administration's twin push on immigration: the Justice Department's lawsuit against Arizona's tough new immigration law, which asks law enforcement to validate immigration status when pulling people over if they have a reasonable suspicion that that person may be in the country illegally, and President Obama's continued focus on the issue of immigration reform in an election year.

"The White House's infatuation with immigration reform is a lose-lose proposal for Democrats this election year," says a senior Democratic aide. "Talk of immigration angers independents, at the same time angering Hispanics because there is more talk and no action just in time for an election. The President would be better served by his advisers if they focused on job creation rather than on hot-button issues like immigration that weaken support for the President, his agenda and Democrats in Congress."

Dealing with immigration for politicians has always come down to a difficult balance between border security and civil rights. It's hard to be tough on one of the issues and not perceived as weak on the other. When Republicans focused on border security in 2005 and 2006, Latino voters viewed them as unsupportive of their civil rights. Conversely, as Democrats have focused on civil rights — whether it be Attorney General Eric Holder's lawsuit against the Arizona law or Obama's push for immigration reform — moderate and conservative white voters see them as falling down on border security. And herein lies many Democrats' frustration with the Administration: for fear of Latino backlash, they have done little to highlight what in reality is Obama's tough enforcement record.

Since taking office, the President has increased the number of criminal deportations by 20%, doubled the border patrol, tripled the number of intelligence agents working the border and sent National Guard troops to also help secure it — moves he finally highlighted in his immigration speech last week. "Government has a threshold responsibility to secure our borders. That's why I directed my Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano — a former border governor — to improve our enforcement policy without having to wait for a new law," Obama said. "Today, we have more boots on the ground near the southwest border than at any time in our history."

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