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Veteran opponents of reform ready for immigration fight

With senators preparing to unveil a bipartisan bill following a weekend agreement between top business and labor groups, advocates for comprehensive immigration reform have a lot of reasons to believe that their long-held dream is finally in sight.

But the other side says: Not so fast.

While even the most vocal opponents of comprehensive reform acknowledge that the politics of immigration have changed – with 71 percent of Latino voters favoring Barack Obama in the last election – those gearing up to fight the legislation argue that the overall landscape hasn’t shifted as dramatically as supporters might think.

“It’s one thing to say ‘we need to do this’ at a 30,000 feet kind of level,” says Dan Holler of Heritage Action for America, the Heritage Foundation’s advocacy arm. “But once they start getting down to the details of the legislation, I don’t think things have fundamentally changed for most of the public since 2007.”

Reps. Adam Schiff, R-Calif., and Luke Messer, R-Ind., join The Daily Rundown to discuss the House's quiet move to its own version of immigration reform.

Among veterans of past immigration fights, “2007” is shorthand for the defeat of the comprehensive reform effort in June of that year. That bill – which, like the current proposal, included a path for illegal immigrants to pay penalties and eventually become eligible for citizenship – collapsed after furious outcry from opponents of “amnesty,” delivering a stinging loss to backer President George W. Bush.  

Many of the same arguments made by opponents of that legislation are being echoed this time: that legalization inherently rewards people who committed a crime by residing in the U.S. illegally; that undocumented immigrants are a drain on federal resources; and that amid a still-sluggish economy, an influx of work-authorized immigrants means fewer jobs for unemployed Americans.

"This is a matter that the whole country needs to be looking at, particularly when we’ve got low unemployment among our low-skilled workers already," Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, who worked to defeat the 2007 measure, told NBC News. "If you legalize 11 million, including seven or eight million workers, they will be free to compete more aggressively for the all the jobs. You've got a pretty serious double-whammy there." 

Related: April's shower of activity on Capitol Hill 

Over the Easter weekend, business and labor groups reached agreement on a framework for a temporary low-skilled worker program, which includes controls to keep recipients of a new “W visa” from depressing others’ wages or taking positions that could be filled by American workers. But not all of the specifics of that proposal are clear.

While the compromise notched a major victory for proponents of reform, the optics of the deal may not sit well with the public, Sessions points out. 

Susan Walsh / AP

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is seen during a committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Jan. 31, 2013.

"I do not believe that a deal should be reached between big labor and big business and everybody’s just supposed to rubber stamp it," he said. "That is not the way legislation is supposed to be done in America." 

Outside groups are focused on the economic argument as well. 

“Everything other than the politics is worse now than it was in 2007,” says Rosemary Jenks, a lobbyist for NumbersUSA, an immigration limitation group heavily involved in fighting the Bush-backed measure.

And according to Jenks, that includes, most importantly, the unemployment rate. It’s improved in recent months to 7.7 percent, but is currently higher than the 4.5 percent recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the summer of 2007.

NumbersUSA – which works to strictly limit legal immigration in addition to opposing efforts to legalize undocumented immigrants – and other groups aim to again mobilize opponents of reform by arguing that the proposed legalization and guest-worker programs would hurt Americans already struggling to find work.

Along with the argument that legalization inherently rewards a criminal action, the economic consequences of immigration will be one of the primary messages underpinning events like the annual “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” radio broadcasting event scheduled for later this month, when conservative hosts will gather in Washington, D.C., to ramp up opposition to the comprehensive reform bill.

On the legalization question, public opinion appears to be trending in the direction of reform. 

In January, a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found for the first time that a majority of Americans support granting legal status to some illegal immigrants, with 52 percent of respondents saying that they favor such plans and 46 percent opposing them.

Spokesman Jay Carney discusses reported immigration reform progress made by the group of eight senators on Capitol Hill.

In 2007, the same poll found 44 percent supporting legalization compared to 51 percent opposing it.

But, while the number has consistently decreased since 2006, there’s still a significant minority of Americans who view immigrants as a drag on America’s economy.

A Pew Research Center poll published last week showed that 41 percent of Americans agree with the statement that “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.”

Proponents of reform say that they are ready for a rematch of the battle they lost six years ago, and no one is expecting an easy win.

“We’re very, very optimistic,” said Felipe Benitez of the Alliance for Citizenship, the umbrella group spearheading the pro-reform effort. “And we are ready for a big, big fight.” 

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