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Schneider: Suddenly, immigration now a two-sided issue

Conflicting currents make the immigration issue tricky to navigate

CNN's Bill Schneider


On the Scene
Bill Schneider

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A day after large pro-immigration rallies were held in more than 70 cities across the nation, Miles O'Brien talks Tuesday with CNN's senior political analyst Bill Schneider about the rallies' potential effects on the contentious congressional debate over immigration reform and the upcoming mid-term elections.

O'BRIEN: I want to share with our viewers a poll you're familiar with. This comes from The Washington Post/ABC. It says this -- basically, the question was what program do you favor? What legislation do you favor? And 63 percent of those polled believe that a program that would lead to legal status and permanent citizenship. Twenty percent say no temporary work program at all and felony status, which is the other end of the spectrum, which reflects the legislation which came out of the House of Representatives.

Factor this into the congressional elections coming up, could this feeling, ... this sentiment, tilt the balance of power in the House?

SCHNEIDER: Well, there are really two prevailing sentiments on the immigration issue, on the illegal immigration issue. People want tough border controls. They want to stop what they definitely believe is an out-of-control flow of illegal immigrants into the United States, and they're going to hold Congress and politicians responsible. They want something done about that, but they also take a fairly sympathetic view, as that poll suggests, towards illegal immigrants who are here. They endorse in that poll, and many other polls, a path to citizenship with, of course, some very tough requirements.

So how will that factor into the election? That's the problem. Members of Congress aren't sure. This has suddenly, with these demonstrations, become a two-sided issue. If they look too lenient and talk about amnesty, they could pay a price for a lot of voters who are very angry over the idea that illegal immigrants should be treated leniently, should be given citizenship. They call that amnesty. On the other hand, there was a constituency newly mobilized out here in the streets that indicated they're going to show up at the polls. They never have in the past. So politicians won't know what to do.

O'BRIEN: ... Of course, we don't know, looking at those crowds, how many of those people are registered voters. If in fact many of them are illegally here in the country, they may not be weighing in at the polls, but nevertheless their voice is being heard loud and clear in ways they have never been heard before.

SCHNEIDER: That's right. And if they stay in this country, many of them eventually are likely to become citizens, and they could become a force. The example that a lot of politicians are pointing to is what happened in California after 1994, when that state, the voters of that state passed a very tough measure cutting off public services to illegal immigrants and their families. That measure passed, and it helped get Gov. Pete Wilson re-elected. And what happened? What happened is large numbers of Hispanics and immigrants became citizens, they started to register, their numbers increased markedly at the polls, and they turned California into what is now a solidly Democratic state. That's what's got Republicans very worried, maybe not this year, but down the line in the near future.

O'BRIEN: So if you had to boil it down people, though, basically people are OK with the status quo, just shut the door to future immigration, and if politicians can navigate that, they're OK.

SCHNEIDER: That's exactly right. They want people who are already here and working hard and obeying the law to be allowed to stay here once they pass certain requirements, like paying a fine for breaking the law, learning English, having a job, paying back taxes, criminal record checks, then they should be allowed to be a citizen. But shut the door. Do something to prevent this uncontrolled flow of illegal immigrants from continuing.

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