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Gillibrand vs. the Minutemen: The New Politics of Immigration as Senate Begins Debate

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Note: Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

As we look ahead to Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on common sense immigration reform, with a star lineup that includes former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Dr. Joel Hunter of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and SEIU’s Eliseo Medina, it’s time once again to take stock of the emerging new politics of immigration.

Two major trends rise to the forefront:

Moderate Democrats appear ready to tackle common sense reform, while Republican extremists stand poised to drive the GOP further into the political wilderness by continuing to demagogue on immigration.

But let’s start with Rahm.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told Latino journalists back in February:

“The arrow is pointing in a different direction in relation to immigration politics in this country.” 

Recent support from key Senate moderates illustrate Rahm’s case.

Take newly-appointed Senators Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) and Michael Bennet (D-CO).  While her record on immigration wasn’t always pretty, as Senator of New York, Gillibrand (D), has traveled the state listening to constituents’ views about the need for comprehensive immigration reform.  This month, she turned the page and announced her support for the DREAM Act, a core piece of reform legislation that would allow immigrant children who have grown up in America but lack immigration papers to go to college and legalize their status, arguing:

America is the only home many of [these students] know, yet they are being denied the opportunity to achieve their full potential.  This legislation says that if they work hard and play by the rules, then they will have the opportunity to get a good education and earn their way to legal status.  

This week, Senator Bennet (D-CO) also expressed strong support for common sense immigration reform.  During a series of town hall meetings, Bennet said that he has spoken with farmers, health care officials, and law enforcement in Colorado who want Congressional action on the issue.  Though he acknowledged that the politics of immigration reform are still “frail” in Colorado, his vocal support for reform is a clear sign that pragmatic politicians are rejecting the Tancredo approach to immigration policy

So what’s this about the Minutemen?

While Democrats seem to be making headway, the Republican Party continues to be dogged by Minutemen hard-liners who oppose practical solutions.  Yesterday, Minuteman Civil Defense Corps founder Chris Simcox announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate, challenging Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in the 2010 elections.  Simcox is a single-issue demagogue who opposes McCain because of his role as a leader in the fight to enact comprehensive immigration reform.  Unfortunately, Simcox is not the only Minuteman running for office.  Illinois Minuteman Rosanna Pulido ran as the Republican nominee in Illinois’ 5th district (ironically, for Rahm Emanuel’s old seat), and garnered less than a quarter of the vote in her dramatic defeat

Indeed, Pulido’s predictable loss (this is a woman who compared Muslims praying to dogs sniffing butts) follows an analysis conducted by America’s Voice in the last election, which revealed that in 20 of 22 battleground races where immigration was an issue, the candidate supporting a more comprehensive approach to immigration reform won.  In addition, candidates who spent significant campaign resources on immigration attack ads gained little- and often suffered- as a result of pandering on the issue.

As Bill Maher suggested in a recent column, The GOP: divorced from reality, now is the time for the Republican Party to denounce the extremists within it, especially when it comes to immigration. He argues, “To paraphrase George W. Bush, either you’re with them or you’re embarrassed by them.” Luckily, there is a rapidly-growing contingent of Republicans in the embarrassed column.