Chuck Schumer, Border Fences and Immigration Politics

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 25: U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) addresses a press conference following a 54-45 vote against a Hous
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 25: U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) addresses a press conference following a 54-45 vote against a House bill that would include the wealthiest Americans in an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts on July 25, 2012 in Washington, DC. The Senate instead approved by a vote of 51-48 a Democratic bill that excludes the highest-earning Americans from a yearlong extension of tax cuts. (Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

An undocumented immigrant demonstrator from the Undocubus at the DNC / DRM Action Coalition

As the debate on gun regulation begins to wind down, the immigration debate that has been brewing behind the scenes is already flaring up on the news cycles. The old lines on immigration are being obscured as Republicans are accepting the reality of a more diverse electorate. Republicans are now competing for Latino votes and taking heat in town hall meetings that grow hostile from the same element within the party that chanted "COMMUNISM!" at the health care town halls, not to mention drove Romney to unelectable extremes during the primaries. With Sens. McCain (R-Ariz.) and Flake (R-Ariz.) facing down an ugly mob, occasionally talking back enough to earn some cranky old man credit, it leaves the other side of immigration wondering: Where are our advocates?

While there are senators and congressmen on the Democrat side that have fought for and against immigration reform, as far as team line-drawing, the image of the Democrats as the pro-immigration party solidified during the election: issues like border security, "self-deportation," SB 1070 and other aspects of anti-immigrant rhetoric were put to the forefront. This was pushed by both national (Gov. Romney), as well as influential state-level leaders (Gov. Jan Brewer, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Kansas Secretary of State/Romney immigration adviser Kris Kobach) across the party.

More moderate voices like Marco Rubio were quieter: they didn't want to tow the line, but seemingly couldn't stomach or invest in selling Romney's brand of immigration. Now Flake and McCain are the ones pushing the envelope and drawing heat with the anti-immigrant, Southwestern crowd.

Alongside McCain and Flake in the "Gang of 8" that opened up the new round of public debate on immigration were Democrats like Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). Dick Durbin, with his emphasis on the DREAM Act and other pro-immigrant legislation, has long been a favorite in the Latino community. Likewise, Bob Menendez calls immigration reform "the civil rights issue of our time," and has a strong record of voting for immigrants' interests against increasing militarized border security and for a pathway to citizenship for guest workers. Chuck Schumer, however, represents a somewhat more ambiguous brand of Democrats, still somewhat invested in looking tough on immigration enforcement.

"I recently wrote and passed The Emergency Border Security Supplemental Appropriations Act (H.R.6080/S.3721). This act provided over $600 million of reinforcements for border security. The funds were used to hire 1,000 new Border Patrol agents to permanently patrol our southern border and 250 new agents for our ports of entry. It created a 'strike force' that can be deployed..." -- These words are straight from Sen. Schumer's website.

Sen. Schumer was asked, "What changes to our current immigration policy do you support?" by the League of Women Voters in 2010 via Candidate Questionaire. He first said, "I support further securing our borders, prohibiting hiring of undocumented immigrants by requiring job applicants to present a secure Social Security card..." Noticeably absent from his answer was any talk of the DREAM Act or comprehensive immigration reform beyond "attracting the world's best and brightest to America, and keeping them here."

Sen. Schumer doesn't have the worst voting record on immigration all in all: he voted for comprehensive immigration reform, continuing federal funding of "sanctuary cities," against prohibiting FEMA relief from undocumented immigrants and a slew of other good votes. His stance on border security, however, is very significant to the upcoming debate: the "border security" issue is one of several issues around along with deportations that will become the new fronts on the immigration debate.

Much like the civil rights debate of the '60s and gun regulation debate of today, we see a divide on immigration issues that is drawn as much by regional cultural lines as party lines, with border security being the quintessential example. Right now, the border is as secure as it will get without militarizing it: the border is as secure as it's ever been by any objective measure, and, according to McCain, would require something like 2 million soldiers to patrol all of it.

All this changing of roles in politics leaves those who will vote during the midterms based on immigration curious: who will offer the better deal, Democrats or Republicans? The strength of the Latino and Asian votes were felt during the 2012 election as coalition politics defeated Romney's nearly-all-white Mad Men vote, and Republicans are learning from this lesson: "self-deportation" will only be uttered by the most desperate congressmen in the most right-wing districts after the 2012 election results.

For those who want to "look tough" on immigration, the border will never be secure enough because their voters will never stop blaming undocumented immigrants for unemployment during a bad economy. Most Americans don't want the border to cost and look similar to Iraq, and ICE is already spending more than any other federal agency on law enforcement (which is why 2,000 undocumented immigrants were released from detention when the sequester hit). Immigration law enforcement has become a bottomless pit to throw taxpayer money: you'll never cut it down much more, but you can buy fancier drones to placate old, angry white voters in Arizona.

Now that the Republicans have taken extremes like "self-deportation" off the table and legislators like Bob Goodlatte, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, are toning down previously harsh rhetoric on citizenship for undocumented children, the party distinctions on immigration are becoming hazy. If Speaker Boehner and Marco Rubio are able to rally more members of the House to a moderate stance on immigration, or even encourage and lead an influential group of pro-immigrant advocates in the House further than the Democrats would go, we could easily see Republicans leap back up to Bush era numbers on the Latino vote in time for the midterms.

Eyes will be on Marco Rubio and Dick Durbin, certainly, but Chuck Schumer has jumped into the ring, and others will doubtlessly jump in or be dragged in on both sides. The image that Democrats and Republicans build for themselves will either help or be hung around the necks of their party-mates during midterm elections, and will set the tone for all things immigration related this political cycle.