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Immigration State of Play: Five Things That Matter Moving Forward

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After several productive weeks for immigration reform in the Senate Judiciary Committee and ahead of a busy legislative push in both chambers in the coming weeks and months, this week’s congressional Memorial Day recess offers a chance for pause and reflection about immigration’s legislative state of play.

Here are five observations about the prospects and process ahead for immigration legislation, from Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

  • For Democrats: 60+ Votes for a Bill to Be Proud of Beats 70+ Votes for a Watered Down Bill: Senators from both sides of the aisle have been vocal in claiming that the Senate is capable of seeing over 70 votes in favor of the Senate legislation.  This is a welcome reminder of the fact that there is a new paradigm in the politics of immigration reform and that both Democrats and Republicans have strong incentives to pass reform in 2013.  With that acknowledged, some members of the Gang of 8 seem willing to trade a bit too much in order to ratchet up a high vote count.  We would remind them that it’s far better to pass a good bill with 60-70 votes than a hopelessly compromised bill with 70-80 votes.  The Senate bill is already a carefully balanced compromise between the right and the left.  Democrats have already come under fire for provisions like border security “triggers,” and for failing to include immigration sponsorship rights for Americans in same sex marriages.  Driving the bill further to the right in pursuit of a few additional Republican votes won’t determine whether the bill passes the Senate or not; it will determine whether the bill retains its broad and intense support from the base.
  • For Republicans: Piling On Anti-Immigrant Concessions Reinforces  Poor Political Brand Image:  Many Republican Senators, such as Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Dean Heller (R-NV) and Rand Paul (R-KY), have been floating their potential support for the Senate bill…but only if the bill includes an array of policy concessions and additional changes that would largely weaken the legislation.  While the Senate will continue to make changes to the bill in the weeks ahead and while some of these Senators’ proposals are serious good faith efforts to improve the bill, the majority of the changes involve throwing more money at the border and, most disturbingly, making the earned legalization process for immigrants even more arduous.  Not only would these changes weaken the bill from a policy perspective, by upsetting the delicate balance that makes the Senate bill a policy breakthrough, but they also would risk reinforcing the Republicans’ problematic brand image among Latino voters.  As Markos of Daily Kos assessed yesterday, “If Republicans are genuinely trying to present a less hateful face to Latinos, continuing to punish these immigrants throughout their normalization process doesn’t exactly get that done. Instead, it only increases the kind of resentment and hostility that the GOP is supposedly trying to combat.  They need to decide: are they actually going to compete for Latino votes, or will they doom themselves to permanent minority status by catering to their nativists.”
  • The Senate Bill Includes the Single Largest Increase in Immigration Enforcement in American History.  Leading opponents of the bill have been trying to breathe life back into their decades-old “enforcement first” talking points, portraying the Senate immigration approach as “legalization first” and avoiding serious enforcement at the border and in the nation’s interior.  This is a red herring – not only does the Senate bill devote unprecedented resources toward a southern border that already has met most of the security metrics from the 2007 Senate immigration bill, but the legislation also includes the mandatory use of an electronic employment verification system to hold employers accountable and end illegal hiring in the workplace.  Together, these provisions represent the biggest increase in immigration enforcement in history.  And instead of the “enforcement only” approach that has been our default immigration policy for over two decades, the reform package includes a legalization process so we can start with a clean policy slate and new visa channels so we can have a future immigration system that actually works.  Of course, bill opponents’ claims about enforcement aren’t exactly being made in good faith – as the Wall Street Journal editorialized recently: “Republicans who claim we must ‘secure the border first’ ignore the progress already made because their real goal isn’t border security.  It is to use border security as an excuse to kill immigration reform.”
  • Time is Not on the Side of Republican Leaders Like Speaker Boehner; He Knows He Must Pass Reform: With many expressing confidence in the Senate bill’s passage, attention is shifting toward the important question of how reform passes in the House of Representatives.  And given the renewed pressure from House leadership for quicker passage of a bill, Republicans should be on notice: the longer immigration reform waits, the more opportunity the anti-immigrant extremists have to define the Party.  Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) noted last week, “the House will work its will.  Don’t ask me how, because if I knew I’d certainly tell you, but the House is going to work its will.”  Despite the lack of specificity from Speaker Boehner, he knows that he will be the key to the House legislative passage in the months ahead.  As Jonathan Bernstein recently wrote in the Washington Post, “the math of the House will require leaders of both parties to be on board for any House-authored bill to succeed.”  And Speaker Boehner clearly grasps the importance of the opportunity for reform: as he said in November regarding immigration, “This issue has been around far too long…A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I’m confident that the president, myself and others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.”  More recently, Boehner voiced support for the Gang of Eight immigration reform effort: “Primarily, I’m in the camp of, if we fix our immigration system, it may actually help us understand who all’s here, why they’re here and what legal status they have.”  The choice before Boehner is clear: be the man who makes a fundamental policy change and improves his Party’s electoral competitiveness or be the man who lets his Party get overrun by the extremists and devolve into irrelevancy.
  • Not Only is the Political Imperative Clear, but the Policy Has Broad-Based Support and the Process is Moving Along Fairly and Well: Earlier this year, one of reform opponents’ lead arguments was a process one – that moving too quickly and advancing legislation “written behind closed doors” was to be avoided.  While this talking point was a transparent attempt by opponents to stall and eventually kill the bill, it is notable how the open Senate Judiciary Committee process overseen by Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has undercut this argument from the other side. Even Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a vocal opponent of the reform legislation and one of six signers to a March letter seeking to slow the pace of the legislation, noted the strengths of how the Judiciary Committee’s work unfolded.  Said Grassley, “I appreciate the way the process has gone…It was a productive conversation.”  The momentum in the Senate is further bolstered by a growing and diversifying coalition that includes faith leaders; ethnic organizations; labor unions; business owners; law enforcement; teachers; veterans; and civil rights leaders.  As Americans for Tax Reform Founder Grover Norquist noted, “Where is the power of the anti-amnesty groups? It is not in the pews, not in the churches, not in the business community. Every free market group in this town is against them except for [the Heritage Foundation].” As the bill moves forward, the fact that immigration is the rare example of a serious, transparent, and bipartisan legislative effort is one of its important sources of strength.