• Red-State Democrats Hang Back on Immigration Push

    Wall Street Journal
    February 15, 2013
    by Sara Murray

    Red-State Democrats Hang Back on Immigration Push

    Senators Running in 2014 Wait to See How the Bill Addresses Local Priorities

    Senate Democrats facing re-election fights next year are hedging on whether they will support the bipartisan push to overhaul immigration laws, one of the president's top priorities.

    Democrats such as Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan and Louisiana Sen.
    Mary Landrieu are churning out carefully calibrated statements designed to encourage the group of bipartisan senators working on the immigration issue while remaining noncommittal about their support.

    That's a contrast with many of their Democratic colleagues, who have already given enthusiastic support to an immigration overhaul. The votes of the more hesitant senators, many of whom represent GOP-leaning states, will likely depend on how the legislation addresses the priorities and quirks of their own states, such as agricultural workers in North Carolina, fishermen in Alaska and skilled workers in Louisiana.

    Ms. Landrieu said in an interview that she is supportive of the idea of a comprehensive overhaul, but she also wants Congress to focus on educating American workers.

    "There's a lot of bipartisan support for giving access to the workforce to people from China and India with Ph.D.s," she said, referring to an expected provision in the overhaul that would give green cards to people who graduate from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science and technology. "I'd like to see a little bit more focus on helping some of our own kids get Ph.D.s." Some 7% of Louisiana residents have a graduate or professional degree, compared with 10.5% nationwide, according to Census data.

    In North Carolina, two industries, technology and agriculture, are sure to take a keen interest in any proposals that emerge. The state's research triangle, which includes universities and high-tech companies, would be affected by the green-card proposal. Changes to temporary-worker programs could be a boon for agriculture.

    "We need the ability of those experienced and undocumented workers that are working here to be able to continue to work in agriculture," said Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau. But, he added, "it's a divisive issue in the nation, and North Carolina is no exception."

    An immigration overhaul is one of a handful of tough votes that some Senate Democrats face. President
    Barack Obama also made wide-ranging proposals in Tuesday's State of the Union address on gun control, climate change and increasing the minimum wage—issues for which he will likely need as many Democratic votes as he can muster.Ms. Hagan suggested she was holding out in order to gauge the impact of specific proposals.

    "He did lay out a lot of large agenda items," said Mr. Pryor. "I don't agree with everything he said, but I look forward to working with everybody here and trying to find common ground." He didn't elaborate on the proposals he disagreed with.

    "What you're going to see them do most is really keep their finger on the pulse of their constituents first and the White House second," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

    Mr. Pryor, who said it is premature to decide where he stands on immigration changes, is sure to get some blowback in his state if he backs the bipartisan plan.

    Mr. Obama lost Arkansas by nearly 24 percentage points in November, and illegal immigrants made up just 1.8% of the population there in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center, but plenty of residents have strong feelings on the matter.

    "Comprehensive immigration reform has only been one word: amnesty," said Jeannie Burlsworth, founder of Secure Arkansas, a conservative grass-roots organization. She said allowing undocumented workers to remain in the U.S. would hurt low-wage workers who are already in the state legally.

    For Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, another red-state Democrat facing re-election, the impact of any bill on fishing and tourism is key to his immigration vote. Last year, the State Department changed its J-1 summer-work travel visa to exclude a handful of industries, including fishing. That is a problem, Mr. Begich said, for the state's fish-processing companies that relied on foreign students.

    "We see this immigration bill as an opportunity to fix this problem," Mr. Begich said.

    He said he is supportive of the push to overhaul the immigration system, but wants to be sure it addresses other priorities in his state, like simplifying the tourism-visa process so it is easier for visitors to come to Alaska from places like China. The senator also wants to ensure that any bill strengthens border-security efforts.

    Mr. Begich has reservations about some of the president's other priorities, particularly on energy and gun control. "If we differ from the president or the national Democrats, so be it," he said.
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