Hispanic leaders call for reform on immigration within 100 days

National Hispanic leaders are pressing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to make immigration reform a top priority within the first 100 days of the new Congress, citing the large numbers of Hispanics who turned out to vote for Democrats in November.

Several of the largest Hispanic advocacy groups in the country, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and the Hispanic Federation, plan to stage a massive grassroots campaign to pressure House lawmakers to move quickly on immigration. They will team with America Votes, one of the nation’s largest liberal voter-mobilization groups, to push reform.

“As you prepare to lead the 110th Congress of the United States of America, we urge you to make immigration reform one of your top priorities during the first 100 days of the new Congress,” the president of LULAC, Rosa Rosales, and the president of the Hispanic Federation, Lillian Rodriguez-Lopez, wrote in a letter delivered to Pelosi and Reid over the weekend.

LULAC describes itself as the country’s largest and oldest Hispanic civil rights organization. The Hispanic Federation is a coalition of about 100 local groups, most based in the New York area.

Hispanic leaders expect the Senate to take up immigration this year, and Reid has included the issue among his top 10 legislative priorities. But the House is a different story, say advocates of reform.

Pelosi and other House Democrats have said little about what legislation they will take up after completing their 100-hour agenda, a collection of relatively uncontroversial bills over which Democrats have reached consensus.

Beyond the first 100 hours it’s hard to speculate” about what Democrats will focus on, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said.  Hammill said Pelosi has discussed immigration reform with President Bush and that both have agreed it should be a “priority.”

Hammill said immigration reform proposals would undergo the regular order of the legislative process, a series of subcommittee and committee hearings and markups, which would affect the timing.

Hispanic leaders are making two clear statements: Reform should include a path to legal residency for the 12 million illegal immigrants now working in the U.S., and a guest-worker program supported by President Bush, which would require foreign workers to return home after several years, is inadequate. They also oppose the building of a fence along the Mexican border intended to stem the flow of immigration.

“Immigrants have dedicated themselves to this country through hard work and determination and America has benefited accordingly,” Rosales and Rodriguez-Lopez wrote. “[T]hey deserve an orderly pathway to legalize their status in the U.S. so they can emerge from society’s shadows into the light of day.”

Hispanic support for Democrats shot up in November compared to 2004. Sixty-nine percent of self-identified Latino voters cast ballots for Democratic candidates, according to national exit-poll data. Only 30 percent voted for Republican candidates. Republican pollsters have said that GOP candidates must receive 40 percent of Hispanic votes to win future elections. Strategists have come to see these voters as crucial because the Hispanic population is the fastest-growing major racial demographic in the country.

But in recent months House Democrats have shied away from the issue for fear of angering conservative-leaning white voters, whom Republican strategists hoped to court in 2006 by pushing strict and punitive immigration proposals.

House Democrats did not mention immigration in “A New Direction for America,” the broad agenda document they made public shortly before the election. The omission drew angry responses from congressional leaders such as Reps. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who heads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s Immigration Task Force.

“I’m very sad and disappointed that comprehensive immigration reform is not a key and pivotal point for the Democrats,” Gutierrez told The Hill in September.

Political strategists who have concentrated on Hispanic outreach say that Democrats have a golden opportunity to capitalize on the increased political attention of Hispanics because of last year’s immigration debate, but that chance could soon pass.

“I think if Democrats want to take advantage of this great disenchantment of Latinos of Republicans, they’re going to have to pass immigration reform this year,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, an advocacy group that spent $2 million before the election to promote Democratic candidates to Hispanics.

“When Democrats got elected in 2006, they got elected to solve immigration,” he said. “I think Hispanics were about 8 percent of the national electorate and there was an enormous swing in the number of Hispanics who turned out.”

Immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship for illegal workers is seen as having strong support in the Senate. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), two of the most influential lawmakers of their respective parties, teamed up to craft a popular bill last year. Lobbyists said they expect the Senate to take up and pass reform before the House, a reversal from the usual course of most bills that first pass the lower chamber.

Rosales said in an interview that LULAC’s board of directors would meet Feb. 8 and 9 to discuss the upcoming lobbying campaign.

“What we’ll decide there [at the meeting] is that comprehensive immigration reform is a top priority,” she said. “I can assure you that our 115,000 members will reach out to their election officials.”

Rosales said her organization would team with America Votes and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.