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December 19, 2014

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Nevadans may be key to new push on immigration

Reid, Ensign are on opposite sides of an issue important to labor, business interests

Nevada has stood out during four years of congressional efforts to overhaul immigration law because the state boasts several heavyweight supporters of far-reaching changes in the federal system — the Culinary Union and the hospitality industry, in addition to the highest ranking member of Congress.

Nevada is also home of a key opponent of the most significant change backed by those other heavyweights: Republican Sen. John Ensign, fourth in his party’s leadership as chairman of the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee, which shapes policy on important issues, including immigration.

He wasn’t as prominent in June 2007, when he opposed the last comprehensive bill that focused on illegal immigration.

Nevada’s other senator, Majority Leader Harry Reid, supported that failed bill, including its key aspect — a path to legalization for many of the nation’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. That provision continues to be the sticking point for Ensign.

The prospect of a potentially decisive face-off between the state’s highest ranking elected officials is not lost on a local coalition of labor unions, nonprofit organizations and immigration lawyers set to launch a renewed push for change Monday.

The effort draws into focus the unique roles of Nevada’s two powerful senators on this international issue and highlights immigration’s importance to the state’s future.

Monday’s announcement in Las Vegas is to include representatives of the 55,000-member Culinary Union and the 11,000-member American Immigration Lawyers Association. About 2,800 members of the lawyers group will be in town next week for their annual convention. Other news conferences are planned for 20 states across the nation, as well, to set the stage for President Barack Obama’s June 8 meeting with congressional leaders on the future of immigration law.

Nevada is unique on the national landscape because its main employers and largest union back an approach that includes not just increased border security and expanded visas for workers but amnesty under certain conditions.

A Pew Hispanic Center study estimated that as recently as 2008, Nevada was tops in the nation in the percentage of illegal immigrants in the workforce, with 170,000 workers lacking documentation, or 12.2 percent of the state’s total.

Nevada industry and union leaders embraced the comprehensive approach in the 2007 bill for reasons including keeping families of employees together and ensuring a future flow of employees. Reid has responded to the will of those constituents, says Pilar Weiss, the Culinary Union's political director.

Ensign’s position is “puzzling,” Weiss says.

“He has the same constituents, but has chosen to align himself with the right wing of his party,” Weiss says. Neither Ensign nor Reid could be reached for comment.

In a recent televised interview with CNN’s John King, Ensign said, “I actually believe ... in comprehensive immigration reform,” adding that he would have supported the 2007 bill if the “whole amnesty portion” had been removed — referring to the idea of creating a system allowing those who meet certain requirements to gain legal status.

But if that aspect is removed, “what’s left?” said Wendy Sefsaf, spokeswoman for the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington-based research organization.

“What does that achieve? At what time do you deal with the undocumented? When there are 20 million?”

The Republican Party’s stance puts it “in a delicate position” with the increasingly important Hispanic electorate in Nevada and nationwide, according to Andres Ramirez, vice president of Hispanic programs at NDN, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization.

In Nevada, three of four Hispanic voters supported Obama in the general election, according to exit polls — the second-highest show of support among Hispanics nationwide, after New Jersey. In the same election, Hispanics cast 15 percent of all votes in Nevada, a 50 percent increase compared with 2004’s tally.

Immigration, Ramirez said, is a litmus test for Hispanic voters — if they think a candidate, or party, is hostile on the issue, they will show less interest in the candidate’s or party’s overall platform. This occurred in the 2008 election, analysts say.

So the party could “risk alienating Hispanic voters more” by opposing a comprehensive bill, Ramirez said.

As chairman of the Senate’s GOP policy committee, Ensign has recognized the importance of Hispanic voters.

According to a media account of an all-day, private GOP meeting at the Library of Congress this year, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., spoke with colleagues about the issue, attributing his loss in the 2008 presidential race in part to lagging support from Hispanics tied to the immigration issue.

“It was discussed big time,” Ensign said afterward to a reporter for The Hill, a Washington, D.C., publication. “We have to reach out to Hispanics. We need to go on Hispanic media much more.”

Organizations to be involved in Monday’s campaign launch will seek to raise the issue above electoral politics, however. Offering a pathway to legalize undocumented immigrants will help stabilize the economy, by bringing more people onto tax rolls and leveling the playing field for all workers, they say.

In the past, representatives of Las Vegas hotels and restaurants have publicly stated that it would be difficult to continue to staff the valley’s hospitality industry without a steady flow of legal immigrant workers.

The position staked out by PLAN, a Nevada coalition of progressive activists, is: “The (immigration) system as it is now doesn’t work,” said Launce Rake, the group’s spokesman. “We want a country that’s secure. Nobody wants illegal immigration. We want enough visas for people chasing the American dream and to get beyond demagoguery on this issue.”

But practically speaking, putting a broad plan before Congress may turn out to be a showdown between Nevada’s two most visible politicians in Washington. Will Reid be more strident in his support this time around? Will Ensign want to continue to brand the GOP as “the party of ‘no’,” as Sefsaf put it?

Several of those set to participate in Monday’s event point to recent polls that indicate national public opinion is increasingly in favor of a broad overhaul of the immigration system.

A late April Washington Post poll reported that 61 percent of people polled support the broad outlines of a plan giving illegal immigrants “the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements,” up from 52 percent in June 2007.

The coming months may determine whether that opinion resonates in Congress. Whatever the outcome, the effect will be particularly significant in the Las Vegas Valley.

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