Commentary: Immigration debate reveals Democrats' divisions | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Immigration debate reveals Democrats' divisions

Apr 10, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The politicians surely didn't intend it, but the recent debate over illegal immigration in the Missouri Legislature has provided an intriguing window into the innards of each party. A fair amount has been written about how the issue of illegal immigration exposes the fault lines in the contemporary Republican coalition, but in Missouri it’s the Democratic Party that shows greater strains.

For sure, the prevailing analysis of the Republican Party is entirely correct. Cultural conservatives are averse to the social changes immigrants bring, but business interests, in addition to their devotion to a free-market ideology, are driven by the practical need for laborers

Missouri Republicans, however, have dealt with their competing camps quite ably. That’s partially a function of being the majority party. With GOP control of the committees, bills can be refined to satisfy varied concerns. 

For example, an early draft of an immigration bill in the House required businesses to use E-verify, a system that is supposed to ensure that employers are not accepting bogus Social Security numbers from undocumented workers. The Missouri Chamber of Commerce vocally opposed the provision; likewise key Republicans were buttonholed by business owners in their donor base about the “red tape” involved with E-verify. It became a voluntary component. 

The cul-cons, though, were content because their cherished deprivations for illegals — no drivers’ licenses, no college admittance, no welfare benefits — remained intact.

Democrats divided

Meanwhile, the deep divisions among Missouri Democrats have been less documented but are just as sharp. And, in this case, they were more real because unlike the majority party they aren’t able to gloss over differences in the construction of the bill. 

Consider the immigration bill’s fate in the Senate. (Click here to see the bill's provisions.) It was diluted by compromises between liberal Sen. Jeff Smith (D-St. Louis) and the bill’s sponsor, conservative Sen. Scott Rupp (R-St. Charles). 

For example, although the bill had a provision denying college admission to illegal immigrants, it was so watered down as to be inconsequential. Anyone born before this law takes effect in August and who completes three semesters at a Missouri high school before college is eligible. In other words, the provision is toothless for the next 18 years. It’ll be 2026 before this law would actually deny a child college entrance. And who knows what immigration policy will look like at that point?

Meanwhile, pro-immigrant activists were stunned that the legislation gained its initial Senate approval without a peep from Sen. Joan Bray (D-St. Louis County). While some observers had assumed that she’d accepted Smith’s amendments as palatable and didn’t want to disturb the compromise, she was, in fact, caught unaware. She was in her office working on her own amendments when debate was closed.

The rural=urban divide

This comedy of errors highlights the disorganization of the Senate's Democratic Caucus. Bray and Smith either hadn’t coordinated their efforts or communicated so poorly as to have the same effect. Smith negotiated directly with Rupp. Bray, meanwhile, hadn’t spoken with Smith (or Rupp, for that matter) and Sen. Maida Coleman (D-University City), the minority leader, was MIA. 

Nineteen of the 20 Republican senators voted to the pass the legislation; the 20th, Sen. Matt Bartle (R-Jackson), didn’t vote. The Democrats meanwhile split their vote evenly. Seven Democratic senators voted against passage; and seven voted in favor. 

The seven voting in opposition were the “urban senators,” all from St. Louis or Kansas City. But those senators from rural districts like Lake Spring (Sen. Frank Barnitz), Clarence (Sen. Wes Shoemyer), Harrisonville (Sen. Chris Koster) and Crystal City (Sen. Ryan McKenna) all voted in favor of the bill. Defying the rural-urban split were Sen. Tim Green (D-St. Louis County) whose strong labor advocacy probably informed his support for the legislation, and Sen. Chuck Graham (D-Columbia) who is up for re-election in an expectedly tight race.

This rural-urban divide within the Missouri Democratic Party is only going to grow. House Minority Leader Paul LeVota (D-Independence), in speaking about the party's recruitment efforts this year, cheered Democratic successes in finding candidates who “fit their district.” That’s become a common euphemism for running pro-life, NRA members as Democrats in rural districts. 

And while that strategy puts more seats in play and will increase the chances that Democrats will someday topple the Republican grip on the House and Senate, the immigration issue shows how hollow that victory may eventually be. The resulting electoral alliances may be too fragile to deliver a coherent agenda. 

For Democrats today, however, that’s a problem they’d love to have.

immigration legislation

What the Senate passed | Kansas City Star

What the House passed | Columbia Missourian

Dave Drebes runs Missouri Scout, a private news service covering state politics.