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Immigration Bill Puts Focus on Red-State Democrats

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - June 5, 2013

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Landrieu, also up for re-election next year, told RCP she is leaning in favor of the Senate bill and is working on “several friendly amendments” to improve it. The chairwoman of the Small Business subcommittee said she is interested in opportunities to hire high-skilled workers. She is looking to create an “express lane” for small businesses to ensure a fair share of high-tech worker visas, and to find ways to help small businesses implement the E-Verify background check system, which the bill mandates.

Landrieu said continued efforts are needed to secure the border, but noted that “we’ve spent billions of dollars . . . to secure the border and it’s much more secure today than it’s ever been in the history of our country.”

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, another red-state Democrat, told RCP his initial concerns about border security and requiring illegal immigrants to pay back taxes and fines have been addressed in the bill, so he’s now focused on “some Alaska nuances,” such as ensuring that the fishing industry in his state has the right workforce available. He also noted that he wants to make sure there is a “true [citizenship] pathway at the end of the day, so it’s not that no one ever becomes a citizen.” Begich said that Numbers USA, an immigration reduction group, is running ads in his state calling the bill an amnesty measure that will threaten the Social Security system. “It’s a bunch of bull,” he said. “Alaskans know it and see it as outsiders trying to tell us what to do.”

North Carolina’s Kay Hagan is undecided about the bill, but told RCP that border security “is very, very important and I’m being briefed on all of the issues” addressed in the 800-page bill. Because her state’s research triangle brings attracts highly skilled immigrants to study and work there, and its farm communities attract seasonal and agricultural workers, Hagan will likely consider the different visa provisions in the measure.

Other Democrats from conservative states who aren’t running in 2014 are also important to watch. Baucus and Tester did not back the 2007 legislation because they didn’t think it was tough enough on illegal immigration. “I cannot support a bill that provides amnesty for illegal immigrants,” Baucus said at the time.

The six-term senator will retire in 2014, but Democrats studying the bill aren’t sure whether that will affect his vote. In April, for example, he voted against the background check bill, saying it wasn’t in his constituents’ interest. On Monday he expressed interest in the immigration proposal. “I’m hopeful to find a way to address reform,” he told RCP. “It’s a responsible thing to do because if you can’t [achieve it] now … this can can’t be kicked down the road.”

West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin is undecided about the measure and “waiting to be persuaded,” but is focused on border security. He told RCP that it’s hard for people in his state to believe that the borders will be secured until they see that lawmakers can “really correct the immigration challenges we’ve had.” He added: “People understand we have a problem, [so] find the best way to fix the problem, stop the wave, have a pathway.” West Virginia also has a small illegal immigrant population, according to census data, and doesn’t experience the same kind of vexing issues as other red states.

Manchin and GOP Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey took a political risk by introducing the gun sales background-check measure, and some observers have wondered whether they are now reluctant to support another complicated and contentious bill. But Manchin dismissed that concern, saying, “I take every piece of legislation on its own merits. … If you can’t go home and explain it, you shouldn’t vote for it.” Manchin plans to offer two amendments: one adjusting the DREAM Act provision requiring either a two- or four-year college degree or four years of military service, and another that would require the Department of Homeland Security inspector general to evaluate current drone use at the borders before the authorization of additional drones. 

Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, a freshman, is noncommittal. “We’re just looking at it. I want to see the whole package,” the Democrat told RCP. (His predecessor, Dick Lugar, voted for the 2007 bill and for the DREAM Act.) North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, another freshman, is leaning toward supporting the bill, but is concerned about security along the nation’s northern border. Her state’s energy boom has attracted many outsiders, and she might consider worker programs and labor issues. 

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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