Gridlock Broken, Open Road Ahead For Immigration Reform

By Jan 31, 2013, 12:26 PM Author's Blog  

After the historically unproductive 112th Congress, it seems the 113th is determined to try to beat the president to the punch – at least if the issue of immigration is a bellwether.

On Monday, eight senators – four Republicans and four Democrats – unveiled an outline for a possible immigration law overhaul. This announcement came just ahead of President Obama’s remarks on the same topic, which he delivered in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

The Senate plan is brief, at a little over four pages, and leaves a great deal to fill in. But it shows a clear way forward and suggests that the time for serious immigration reform has finally arrived.

I have written often in this space about the pressing need for a saner immigration policy. Just under a year ago, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., proposed a version of Sen. Richard Durbin’s Dream Act bill, which ended up going nowhere. (Both Rubio and Durbin are among the new plan’s bipartisan team of developers.) A couple months later, Obama announced an executive order that clumsily attempted to patch over the current Kafkaesque system. But the reality of enforcement remained arbitrary and frustrating.

This new agreement feels different than other recent attempts at change, however, both in its support and its provisions. The suggestions include all the elements that a sensible immigration overhaul should have, including: a provision to legitimize the 11 million people who are already here illegally without making them return to their home countries first; a way to allow skilled college graduates to stay and work for – or, one day, start – companies based in America; and a means to give unskilled people ways to come here to do jobs that Americans won’t do.

The Senate plan includes compromises that are not in Obama’s proposal. Most notably, the plan includes stepping up border security before current undocumented immigrants can begin the path to citizenship. Those immigrants would also face a fine, the prospect of federal back taxes, and a long wait while those who have already applied for permanent resident status under the current system are processed first. Whether the plan remains mainly intact or evolves before its adoption remains to be seen.

Even in its current form, this plan should easily pass in the Senate with a combination of Democratic and Republican votes. It will be harder to get through the House of Representatives, where many Republicans come from districts with strong anti-immigrant sentiment and relatively small numbers of Hispanic voters. They may see themselves as vulnerable to primary challenges if they budge on the issue. But the GOP’s leaders clearly learned from the November elections that, to be competitive in statewide and national balloting in the future, the party has to respond to the concerns of America’s fast-growing Hispanic population, who want to see their often-separated families reunited, legally and safely, here in the United States.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the former presidential candidate and another of the plan’s designers, spoke to ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “There is a new, I think, appreciation on both sides of the aisle – including maybe more importantly on the Republican side of the aisle – that we have to enact a comprehensive immigration reform bill,” he said. “We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours, for a variety of reasons, and we’ve got to understand that.”

Though individual Republicans, mainly from the House, have already rejected the proposal, the Republican Party as a whole can’t afford to be so intractable. Mitt Romney earned barely a quarter of the Hispanic vote last November, which proved one of his key stumbling blocks in the presidential race. The party itself, as well as its candidates, is fighting a perception – often forged in statehouses in places like Arizona and Alabama, as much as in Washington – that it is flatly anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant. The best way to replace that perception is by helping to create a new immigration reality, with a system that is humane, efficient and fair.

So we can expect House Speaker John Boehner to, once again, abandon the “Boehner principle” by allowing his chamber to consider immigration reform legislation even if a majority of Boehner’s own caucus opposes it, as he did with the fiscal cliff legislation on New Year’s Day. Just as with the cliff legislation, we can expect immigration reform to pass the House with primarily Democratic votes, supplemented by a minority of Republican members. This will permit individual GOP members to vote either their consciences or their district’s politics in opposition, while the national GOP avoids the continuing stigma of being the main obstacle to much-needed reform.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said the time was right for the proposal, which he helped develop. “First of all, Americans support it in poll after poll. Secondly, Latino voters expect it. Thirdly, Democrats want it. And fourth, Republicans need it.” The political sweet spot between what Democrats want and what Republicans need should be enough to give this plan the necessary momentum.

I’m not certain Democrats want immigration reform as badly as Menendez implied. Labor unions, the party’s strongest support base, historically dread wage competition immigrant workers. The Senate plan has drawn some initial support from unions, but we’ll see what happens when legislators start working out the details. Democrats have had a virtually free ride on immigration in recent years while Republicans beat their chests about border security. We are likely to see some divisions on the Democratic side, too, as reform makes its way through Congress.

An overhaul was too long in coming, and the proposal is still far from a done deal. But the political stars seem to have finally aligned to help us get to a reasonable resolution for immigration.

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