Nevada: The immigration reform crucible

On Saturday morning, Las Vegas Latino leaders hosted a meeting at the Mexican eatery, Lindo Michoacan, to discuss pressing issues.

Among the topics that arose was a proposed driver’s privilege card that will come before lawmakers this session as well as funding for English Language Learners. At least a half dozen legislators stopped by the breakfast, including state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, Assemblyman James Healy, Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel, state Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis and….state Sen. Barbara Cegavske (which of these does not belong with the others?).

The issue of ELL funding appeared to be a flashpoint, I’m told, as a battle may come in Carson City not about the idea but about the amount appropriated. Gov. Brian Sandoval has proposed $14 million, but the fight may be over “a token gesture versus a real commitment,” one attendee told me.

If advocates in Washington, DC, smell an opportunity to corral Republicans whose eyes have been opened by the 2012 balloting and Hispanic exit poll numbers, Nevada Democrats should be even more eager. Nowhere in the country has the importance of the Hispanic vote been more obviously demonstrated than Nevada in the last three election cycles – two that dramatically boosted President Obama to victory here and one that helped save Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

It is no accident that President Obama chose Las Vegas or the sunny venue of Del Sol High School for his announcement Tuesday of his own immigration reform hopes. Nor is it an accident that Flores and Kihuen were seen as critical Obama surrogates during 2012 in the state – two ambitious pols seeing helping Obama as helping Hispanics and, perhaps, their careers.

And now, as Republicans such as Cegavske and Sen. Dean Heller begin to see brown people – they like them, they really like them! – their opportunism will be quickly exploited by Democrats from Capitol Hill to Carson City’s Legislative Building. Sandoval gets it, too.

The governor was a SB 1070 lover until he was against it – at least for implementation in Nevada. He is up for re-election, and he can read exit polls, too. And if you don’t believe any of that, consider: Notice how quickly the governor’s office sought a ”clarification” on his position on driver’s privilege cards after a local “newspaper” characterized it incorrectly. He knows.

But Nevada is not just an obvious petri dish to grow immigration reform for the president and Nevada lawmakers because of the burgeoning Hispanic population – a quarter of the state in raw numbers and close to a fifth of the electorate in 2012. Despite its right-to-work statutes, Nevada remains a labor bastion, and the populous Culinary union, which backed Obama early in 2008, teems with Hispanic members and is now led by a Latina.

What’s more, national labor groups will be the critical grass-roots force helping Obama get immigration reform passed this year, and no one is more effective on the ground than the Culinary. Along with a huge national campaign launching this week by the AFL-CIO, the Culinary will surely will be at the forefront of the immigration reform battle to come, applying pressure to Heller and GOP Rep. Joe Heck, who represents a swing district and is not seen as inflexible on immigration reform.

Against the national backdrop, and with Democrats controlling both houses in Carson City, the party’s leaders have to realize they have a chance to make a real impact on immigration and related issues in a way they could not have before. ELL funding is a great place to start. There is no greater problem for the school districts than teaching children who cannot speak English and who are dropped into the public system.

GOP Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson tried to get ahead of the curve with his $20 million proposal a month before the election. Then, Sandoval, in his State of the State speech a couple of weeks ago, offered up $14 million.

Both of those are veritable drops in the bucket. And I sense that Democrats and their allies want the Republicans to help them carry a lot more water.

Not only do they have the political leverage based on the results last November, but the policy imperative is compelling, too: Better ELL begets better learning begets better test scores. And I’d guess that other issues also will come up to put Republicans in pickle as they look to 2014 and dream of legislative hegemony. I bet Democrats are making a list right now.

And I’d guess is we will start seeing more Republicans at those Latino leaders breakfasts.