Dems must pick point person before immigration debate

The Democratic takeover of Congress might revive chances for passing a comprehensive immigration package that would include a pathway to citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

Democrats have been more amenable to such legislation than congressional Republicans, even though President Bush has pushed for such a measure. But first, House Democrats must decide who will be their policy point person -- the Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee chairman -- to shepherd a bill though the House. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, is ranking member of the panel, though there is speculation that Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., might pursue the chairmanship.

Lofgren is ranking member of the Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee. Jackson Lee and Lofgren have the same House seniority; both were elected in 1994. According to one lobbyist, Jackson Lee's positions on the issue have shifted at times, making her a problematic negotiator.

The lobbyist noted that Lofgren is a former immigration lawyer who taught the subject at the University of Santa Clara and has worked with Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., on legislation that would expand the allotment of H1-B visas for high-tech workers.

"She [Lofgren] is very knowledge about the details on how to make the immigration system functionable on the ground," said Ben Johnson, director of immigration policy center at the American Immigration Law Foundation.

House Democrats probably would have to work with Republicans such as Dreier, and Reps. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Chris Cannon of Utah to move legislation because some of their newly elected members -- such as Reps.-elect Brad Ellsworth of Indiana and Heath Shuler of North Carolina -- took harder-line stances on immigration during their campaign.

House Republicans also must select a ranking member for the panel, as Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chairman John Hostettler of Indiana lost to Ellsworth.

Business and labor groups are joining efforts now that the political terrain has improved. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney gave an unspecific endorsement Wednesday, asking Congress to begin work immediately on a list of priorities that includes "developing a reasonable immigration policy that protects the rights of all workers."

Bruce Josten, executive vice president for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the White House believes its political instincts were right in pursuing a comprehensive immigration package despite opposition from some GOP House leaders, noting that exit polls show about 70 percent of Latino voters backed Democratic candidates. "If you are [White House political adviser] Karl [Rove], you are saying ...'I was right.'...The RNC was right. But obviously their leadership in the House saw it quite differently," Josten said.

The Senate is more likely to move legislation first because it already passed a comprehensive package earlier this year under Republican control. Johnson noted that Senate Democrats might seek to tweak that measure, especially as some immigration advocates believe that it strips critical due process provisions from legal immigrants seeking citizenship.

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