Immigration is a hot topic across America, with Democratic presidential contenders sparring over the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and Republicans striving to out-do one another on promises to improve border security.
It's also a subject that has caught the attention of Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver. He is a co-sponsor of the Secure America with Verification and Enforcement Act, an immigration bill that's generating controversy within Baird's own party.
At issue is the SAVE Act's preference for an enforcement-only approach to dealing with the problem of illegal immigration. It provides for 8,000 more border patrol agents by 2012, increases border surveillance, enhances law enforcement's ability to crack down on illegal immigrants already within the U.S., and mandates that employers verify the legal status of prospective employees. Many Democrats favor a more comprehensive solution, such as that supported by President Bush -- and that's presenting some obstacles for the Baird-backed bill advancing in the House.
One of those raising objections to SAVE is Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois. He is the author of a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system that would deal with enforcement, while also creating a new temporary-worker program and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. Gutierrez views SAVE as incomplete, and he's not alone. Democratic Rep. Joe Baca of California, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, agrees.
Meanwhile, the bill has attracted criticism from Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California for covering much of the same ground as existing (and largely unenforced) laws.
On top of all this, there is concern among the Democratic ranks that the bill looks too much like legislation that House Republicans crafted last year. (Indeed, Mr. Immigration Firebrand himself, Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, is a co-sponsor of SAVE.) The Republican legislation moved then was blamed in some quarters for pushing many Hispanics to vote Democratic in 2006, which according to CNN exit polls, 69 percent of them did. Democratic leaders are keen to avoid reversing that trend, and the concern is that pushing SAVE could do just that.
But, getting tough on immigration is also a must-do for many Democrats, and Baird considers himself one of them. True, Washington is a state less inclined toward a hard line on immigration than many (Rasmussen surveys conducted last year show that just 33 percent of Evergreen State voters support forcing all illegal immigrants in the U.S. to leave). But, it is, nonetheless, an important issue, and one on which Baird's constituents almost certainly have more conservative views than those in, say, Seattle. After all, Washington's 3rd District is one of only a handful nationwide held by Democrats who voted for President Bush twice, and last November, the Cook Political Report rated it as "potentially competitive."
Moreover, in Clark County, the heart of the district, concerns run high about the proliferation of gang violence -- something that is frequently seen as connected to illegal immigration.
For Baird, co-sponsorship of SAVE, therefore, seems logical, though some grass-roots Democrats take issue with his support. He already has been criticized at liberal blog OpenLeft.com, with blogger Chris Bowers dubbing him a "Rove Dog" for backing legislation that is "harmful to the long-term political standing of the Democratic Party." Other bloggers and grassroots activists reportedly have their eye on Baird, too, with his support for SAVE being the latest in a growing string of "offenses."
However, all that may ultimately matter little. The SAVE Act could be headed for the scrap heap, thanks to its original Democratic co-sponsor, ex-football player and freshman Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina making a novice error. Shuler failed to consult with Sanchez, chairwoman of the House subcommittee that would review it, prior to the bill's introduction. That, combined with opposition from many Democrats, means the bill's supporters, including Baird, may have to circumvent the committee process in order to bring it to a vote. That isn't an impossible task, but it's not an easy one, either.
Baird will be hoping it can be done. But, with regard to the SAVE Act, hope may not be enough.