Immigration just might be the issue that breaks through the White House “veal pen” strategy and forces them to deal with an issue — or risk the defection of an important part of the Democratic base in the 2010 elections.

When the White House punted on immigration reform lat year after the Sotomayor confirmation, I started asking members of Congress if they thought immigration would actually come up for a vote this year.  They all laughed, as if anyone would expect them to do something so controversial in a midterm election year.

But even before the Arizona law was passed, the standard White House strategy for quelling liberal discontent was already at risk of failure.  Captivating community validators, engaging in symbolic gestures and then blaming the GOP for their inability to carry them out has worked well on issues like health care, choice and LGBT rights, but there were signs that those who care about immigration reform were not going to be so easily pacified.

Nobody believed that Luis Gutierrez was actually going to tell Hispanic voters to stay away from the polls in 2010, but the fact that he was already threatening to go nuclear was a sign of the pressure he was already feeling from his constituents.

As Jonathan Martin writes in Politico this morning:

[F]or Democrats to pass immigration reform before November, party leaders would have to force members from conservative-leaning districts to cast yet another tough vote that could raise the ire of swing voters.

Remember, Rahm Emanuel is the architect of the corporate welfare platform known as NAFTA, and after blaming his 2006 failures as head of the DCCC on the fact that Democrats weren’t “tough enough” on immigration, he got Heath Shuler to put forward the draconian SAVE Act. He then encouraged all the freshmen to co-sponsor it for electoral “protection” in 2008, triggering a revolt of the Hispanic caucus on the floor of the House.

But Hispanics turned out 2-1 for Obama in 2008, and were key to victories in swing states like Ohio and Florida.  And now that everyone has midterms on the brain, America Votes has released a report identifying 41 races — 29 House seats, 8 Senate seats, and 3 Governor’s races – where Hispanic voters could determine the outcome.

The last thing Democrats want to do is bring a meaningful immigration bill up for a vote.  Now that we all know what it looks like when the White House really wants to put the screws to Democratic House members and force them to vote for something — as we witnessed  during the health care bill — symbolic gestures and “blame it on the Republicans” aren’t going to cut it.

But as Martin says, the GOP is also at risk here:

Republicans face longer-term peril — if they continue to push aggressive legislation cracking down on illegal immigrants, Hispanic voters are likely to continue their exodus to the Democratic Party.

Although the GOP would love to play the situation for political advantage, they risk permanent defection of Hispanic voters if they come off looking like a bunch of foaming racists.  But the Democrats are equally at peril:  people may just be too angry in the wake of the Arizona law to accept “not as bad as the GOP” as good enough.

Meaningful immigration reform has been way too long in coming.  They should have addressed it last year.  And now, the need to do something in the wake of the Arizona law could pit Democrats who need Hispanic voters to turn out in the fall against the Blue Dogs who don’t want to take another “tough vote” they feel won’t be popular in their districts.

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