Why Immigration Reform Won’t Get as Rowdy as Health Care

A look back at the contentious 2009 debate over Obamacare.

July 22, 2013, 10:30 AM

July 22, 2013— -- When Congress broke for its August recess four years ago, many members of Congress probably would have preferred to stay in Washington.

Conservatives across the country were seething over the health care reform bill proposed by a still-fresh-faced President Obama.

At town hall meetings from Tampa to St. Louis, Tea Party activists shouted down elected officials as they tried to explain their support for the sweeping health care package. Some meetings degenerated into violence between backers and opponents.

Immigration reform heads to similar territory in a few weeks. Lawmakers will travel back to their districts and meet with constituents. But will we see the same pitched resistance that came to define the health care debate?

Probably not, or at least not on the same level. There are three reasons for that:

1. It’s not all about Obama

The pushback against “Obamacare” in 2009 was as much about the president as it was about the policy. The bill was his first major undertaking and the opposition saw this as a chance to stifle his agenda.

Immigration is different. Obama is in favor of reform, but the bill that passed in the Senate was drafted by a group of four Republicans and four Democrats. It’s a bipartisan effort, and prominent Republicans like Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) have led the charge to pass the legislation.

2. There’s more support for immigration reform

An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in August 2009 found that fewer than half of Americans -- 45 percent -- supported the health care plan as it had been explained.

Meanwhile, the majority of Americans are in favor of the biggest parts of the immigration bill that passed in the Senate this June.

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 55 percent of Americans supported creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and 64 percent supported a plan to add more Border Patrol agents and border fencing.

That’s a much warmer reception than health care got four years ago.

3. Grassroots organizing against immigration appears weaker

Immigration isn’t a major concern for most Americans. A January survey by the Pew Research Center found that “dealing with illegal immigration” ranked 17th on a list of top public priorities for the president and Congress.

So far, that’s been reflected in the grassroots organizing around the issue. Groups against immigration reform haven’t mobilized in the same numbers as they did in 2007, when Congress was trying to pass a similar immigration plan. And we haven’t seen the kind of pushback among Tea Party activists that we saw when the health care bill was nearing passage in March 2010.

The takeaway: Don’t expect the town hall meetings to be totally quiet and cordial, but you won’t likely see anything like the eruption that followed the health care proposal in 2009.

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