Washington Matters


Immigration Reform is Dead, Right?
Not So Fast

Mark Willen

Scott Brown's Senate victory won't end the push for an overhaul of immigration law.



The conventional wisdom in Washington is that without a 60-vote Democratic supermajority in the Senate, there’s no chance that President Obama can win passage of the comprehensive immigration legislation he supports. Democrats are running scared, and for many, it seems crazy to even think about tackling another tough issue, especially one that ignites the Tea Party and talk radio and TV crowd. But as we’ve learned, the conventional wisdom in Washington is often wrong.

Obama and his allies in Congress are talking about a bill that includes tighter border security, tough action against employers who hire illegal aliens, an expansion of legal immigration and guest worker programs and a path to legal status for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S.

The odds may still be against working out an agreement among politicians far more concerned with their political hides. But there are several factors that suggest it’s too early to stage a funeral:

1) Immigration has always been a bipartisan issue. Consider that the biggest backers of the last big attempt were George W. Bush, John McCain and Ted Kennedy. That’s not exactly a party-line divide. Sure, the strongest opposition comes from conservative Republicans who say any path to legal status for those who sneaked in the U.S. – no matter what penalties are tacked on – amounts to amnesty, a good rallying cry for a 30 second campaign spot. But business groups, which are important Republican allies, want a solution to what they feel is a serious labor problem for many companies. The recession has dampened the need – especially in the construction industry – but firms know that they’ll need the extra labor eventually.

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2) As the 41st Republican, Brown will certainly give a united GOP the power to stop many pieces of legislation, but his win means less for immigration, assuming bipartisan negotiations prove fruitful. In fact, despite what opponents say, Brown may well become part of the bipartisan effort. While he campaigned against amnesty, he didn’t define what he meant by that, and let’s face it: You can’t be a Tea Party conservative and survive for long in Massachusetts.

3) For the past few years, the Bush and Obama administrations have tried to set the stage for a comprehensive bill by showing they are serious about enforcement. The borders are much tighter today, with a virtual fence in progress and many more border guards. And employers face a lot more scrutiny as the government goes after firms that knowingly hire illegals. But long term, that will only exacerbate the labor shortage, and that’s why businesses are pushing for a guest worker program. And Democrats won’t agree to that without a plan for legal status.

4) The Hispanic vote is more important than ever, and no issue is more important to Hispanics than a sound immigration system that helps keep families together. Latinos are the fasting growing segment of the population and last year made up 15% of the U.S. population, higher even than the 14% who are African-American. That’s a voting block that’s increasingly hard to ignore, and one that could swing to either party.

5) Public opinion polls show broad support for immigration reform, though a lot depends on how the question is asked. Almost two-thirds say they support a path to legal status for illegal immigrants already in the U.S., but once the word “amnesty” is used, support drops. So controlling the public debate can make a big difference.

For the record, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid is planning to bring an immigration bill to the floor by June or July, with Obama’s blessing. But the politics still make passage this year a long shot. A lot of moderate Democrats in competitive districts will feel safer doing nothing. But both parties will benefit if they show they can work together to get something done, and immigration offers a reasonable possibility. And then there’s the Democratic need to capture the Hispanic vote and the GOP desire not to alienate either Hispanics or business groups. So stay tuned.




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