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Politics

Why Immigration Reform Is Likely in 2013

Many Republicans argue that their party needs to reach out to Hispanics to stay relevant in national elections.

Is 2013 the year for immigration reform? It sure seems that way. Even as Congress remains divided on many other issues, the prospects for a major overhaul are the best they’ve been in years.

The Senate, for sure, will pass a broad immigration package, backed by Democrats and some moderate Republicans. The fight will be more difficult in the GOP-controlled House, where hard-line conservatives will try to resist the push by more-mainstream Republicans to make big changes.

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But, in the end, don’t be surprised if a bill sneaks through and is signed by President Obama this fall, with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) at his side.

The reason? The political winds have shifted since 2007, when a coalition of strange bedfellows -- conservatives and some in organized labor -- lined up to doom President George W. Bush’s initiatives to allow many illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. and work.

This time, organized labor stands united. It’s the Republican Party that’s divided. One on side are conservatives, fighting to derail any immigration reform. On the other, party members who want to mend fences with Hispanics and other minority voters before 2016, when the next president will be chosen. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won just 27% of the Hispanic vote this year, down from 44% for Bush in 2004. If the downward trend continues, some in the party worry that even Republican strongholds such as Texas and Arizona will tilt toward the Democrats, as Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada did this time around.

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Details of a legislative package must still be worked out, but any deal is likely to have four elements:

1. Stronger security along U.S. borders, especially with Mexico. Look for provisions allowing the National Guard and U.S. troops to get involved when needed.

2. A path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants now in the U.S. This will incorporate Obama’s executive order that bans the deportation of younger illegals who came here as children. Some Republicans join Democrats in seeing immigration as an economic issue. One study by a conservative think tank suggests that giving illegal immigrants a chance to stay in the U.S. would add $1.5 trillion to GDP over 10 years, mostly because of higher tax revenues and increased consumer spending.

3. An expansion of the temporary worker program, which is favored by many businesses. Firms have difficulty filling key jobs in science and technology because too few Americans are qualified to do the work and visa limits keep out many skilled workers from India and elsewhere. And some folks in the agriculture industry say that crops rot in the fields for want of workers to harvest them. Many Americans won’t take such jobs because the pay is low and the work is seasonal. Overall, business groups want to more than triple the number of work visas that are issued. That’s unlikely, but the number will go up.

4. More responsibility for employers to verify the legal status of workers. Look for use of an electronic eligibility program to expand from federal contractors to all employers. In return, business owners want an exemption from state laws that also govern employment status, and assurances that they won’t be charged with violations if they act in good faith to comply.

The debate will be fierce, with much talk from conservatives about Americans who can’t find jobs because of the influx of illegals, and much push-back from backers of an overhaul that U.S. workers don’t want or can’t do the work performed by many immigrants who are here legally or illegally.

In the end, the political argument that Republicans need to reach out to Hispanics to stay competitive in national elections and in some states is likely to carry the day.

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