Groups that favor a hard line on immigration are savoring the shift in the House of Representatives from Democrat to Republican.
Even more so, they say they feel a growing momentum because two Republicans – Reps. Lamar Smith of Texas and Steve King of Iowa – well known for their preference for tough immigration enforcement, will be in key leadership positions in Congress.
Smith is expected to become the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and King is set to be the next chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration.
"We have to stop the bleeding of the borders and shut off the jobs magnet," King said to Fox News Latino. "I'm opposed to amnesty, it's pardoning immigration lawbreakers and rewarding them with the objective of their crime."
King said he wants the new Congress to gather data on immigration that would provide "the larger picture" of the system and its flaws.
"We have not built a factual base" for pursuing changes to the immigration system, he added.
Groups that want strict enforcement feel its their moment to make their case.
"We’ve played mostly defense,” said Ron Bass, head of the United Patriots of America, a group that advocates for strict immigration enforcement. “The other side introduces an amnesty bill, and then we strike it down. The political left has had control of the playing field for many years. Now we’ll have leaders who will take immigration enforcement seriously. They’re not going to be fooling around.”
Those who want strict enforcement are steadfastly against a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would give a path to citizenship for people living in the United States illegally.
Proposals for comprehensive reform have called for bolstering security along the borders and cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, but they also have stressed a pathway to legalization for undocumented people who have no criminal record, paid taxes, and who meet other criteria.
Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform argue that it is logistically impossible, and not in the best interests of the United States, to attempt to deport all illegal immigrants. Estimates of how many there are in the United States range from 11 million to over 20 million.
“We’re saying that we can secure the borders, and remove people who are criminals, but we should also help people who are not criminals and who contribute have an opportunity to become legal,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice in Washington D.C.
“Almost 70 percent of the people who are here illegally have lived in this country for more than 10 years,” Sharry said. “They are in families where there are legal immigrants and U.S. citizens. The answer to the problem is not, as the other side wants, mass expulsion.”
But those on the other side of the debate argue that at no time in recent history has it been more crucial for the United States to crack down on illegal immigrants and move to remove them.
With so many Americans out of work, they argue, it makes no sense to keep millions of people in this country who are breaking the law and occupying jobs that people who are here legally badly need.
Strict enforcement supporters, who in the 1980's framed immigration as an environmental issue, arguing that it fueled overpopulation, say the new frame must be employment.
“If we can put together the argument as being totally about jobs, we can get more support,” said Roy Beck, head of NumbersUSA, one of the country’s leading organizations fighting for strict immigration enforcement. “There are seven million illegal aliens in the workforce. There are about 14 million unemployed Americans. If we move those illegal aliens out of those jobs, that would be more open jobs for Americans.”
At the top of the agenda for stricter enforcement is making E-verify mandatory, so that all employers must check a federal database to confirm a prospective worker’s eligibility to work in the United States.
“Jobs are the reason many people stay here illegally,” Beck said. “I support border security, but people will cross the border because they want better lives for themselves and their children. People stay here when they can find work. If they cannot get work, they will not want to stay.”
Beck says that Republicans must push enforcement as something that is beneficial to Hispanics, not harmful. There’s no reason, he said, why pushing for immigration enforcement should alienate Republicans and Hispanics.
“Hispanics who are here legally are some of the most hurt by illegal immigration,” he said. “Illegal workers are in direct competition with legal Hispanics for jobs. The unemployment rate for Hispanics is atrocious.”
Many groups calling for more enforcement also want to see more states have immigration laws, such as Arizona’s, which allows local police to check for immigration status and is being challenged in court.
And they do not want illegal immigrants to be allowed to attend college at in-state tuition rates, which now is allowed in some states.
Even those who were the most optimistic just two years ago about comprehensive immigration reform now say the chance for a bill that would provide a path to legalization is basically non-existent.
“The chances of a legislative breakthrough are pretty bleak,” Sharry said, adding that under President Obama and a Democrat-controlled Congress, “the Republicans blocked efforts to pass legislation. Now it will be even easier for them. They will be relentless and hardline.”
Sharry believes that immigration will not be treated as a serious issue to resolve, but as a tool for upcoming elections.
“There’ll be, I think, a huge fight about immigration in 2011 and 2012,” he said, “but mostly it will really be about setting up the 2012 election. Harry Reid may push Democrats to do something about comprehensive immigration reform to show Hispanic voters that the Democrats are on their side. Republicans will feel that their conservative base wants enforcement, and will act on that.”
“We’ll see a sharp distinction between the parties on immigration that will be a huge factor, I think, in the 2012 elections.”
Sen. Robert Menéndez, a New Jersey Democrat, said he holds out some hope, albeit cautious, that action on some kind of immigration bill will happen during the lame duck session.
“I think it’s the best chance we have for comprehensive immigration reform,” said Menéndez, who introduced a bill this year. “It could happen, if the president uses this chance to reach out to Republicans who are retiring or who didn’t get re-elected, and also reaches out to Democrats who are retiring or didn’t get re-elected.”
“Otherwise, it will be incredibly hard later,” Menéndez said. “You’ll have people leading who are enforcement only individuals.”