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On Immigration Reform, It’s About to Get Serious in the Senate

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After months of anticipation, the full Senate debate on immigration is kicking off with a series of procedural votes on Tuesday and then the start of amendments.  While there is always high drama around anything Congress does, including the immigration issue, there’s also a palpable sense that politics, policy, and momentum are on the side of getting immigration reform done this year.

Among key developments from the past week:

  • New Poll of Latino Voters Shows Why Immigration Reform is a “Make it or Break it” Issue for the Republican Party:  A new Latino Decisions poll out this week shows just why Republicans need to help pass immigration reform with a path to citizenship—they won’t be able to talk to Latino voters unless they do.  Immigration reform is now the top issue Latino voters want addressed, and a sweeping majority (87%) said that they would blame the Republican Party (in whole or in part) if reform doesn’t pass this year.  This electorate’s unique personal connections to the immigration debate, with 2/3 knowing someone who is undocumented and 1/3 having a family member who would benefit from comprehensive immigration reform, influence their stance on this issue dramatically.  And, it’s not just enough for the GOP to make a slight change on immigration, they have to embrace full and fair comprehensive immigration reform.  When asked whether or not Congress “should focus only on border security first” or “address both a path to citizenship and border security together,” 81% said both.  In fact, 76% of Latino voters who have voted GOP at some point in their lives—in other words, the group that is clearly in play for the GOP—said both enforcement and citizenship should happen at the same time.  Only 13% of Latino voters agreed with the border security first approach favored by some members of Congress.
  • Republicans Machinations in the Senate:  There’s been a lot of chatter about whether Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is committed to passing the bipartisan immigration bill he helped craft, or whether his flirtations with hardliners like Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) could in fact derail the process.  When Cornyn announced plans for an amendment that creates for hardened “triggers” and new restrictions on eligibility for the path to citizenship, Rubio seemed open to working with Cornyn on these changes, but as a new POLITICO story confirms, Cornyn’s acting on his own.  Those who have followed this issue for decades know that Cornyn is famous for talking the talk on immigration reform without walking the walk.  Back in the McCain-Kennedy days, Cornyn made beautiful speeches about the need for reform and then worked with Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) to propose a bill aimed at undermining support for McCain-Kennedy.  When the bill moved to the Senate floor in 2006, he proposed poison pill amendments and then, despite the fact that 23 Republicans voted for it, he voted against it.  In 2007, after winning approval for a poison pill amendment that undermined support for the bill and began the demise of the effort, he again voted no.  To add insult to injury, only moments after he helped defeat reform, Senator Cornyn took to the Senate floor and gave a speech about the need to pass immigration reform. And in 2010, he voted against the DREAM Act, blocking the bill from the 60 votes needed to end a Republican filibuster and dashing the DREAMs of millions of young people.

    There are reasonable, measured changes designed to improve the bill, and then there are changes designed to destabilize the coalition backing it.  After Cornyn’s announcement, Democratic aides who have been part of the negotiations explained why these provisions were non-starters.  And Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), a seasoned veteran of bipartisan immigration negotiations, predicted that changing the citizenship triggers in such a manner would, in fact, jeopardize the bill: “If you change the trigger, it would probably fall apart.  Having unachievable triggers is not going to be acceptable to our Democratic colleagues.”  Rubio also recommitted to the legislation, telling reporters, “I’m working as hard today on immigration reform as I ever have. That’s what I’m committed to trying to accomplish, and that’s what I’m spending all of my time on, figuring out how we can get a bill that passes the Senate and serves as a starting point to get it passed in the House as well…I won’t abandon this issue until it’s done, until we get a bill passed.”  This was welcome to hear, but Rubio and others need to be careful that they don’t push the bill too far right and make it impossible for Democrats—who will supply a majority of the votes for final passage—to stay on board.

    Meanwhile, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) jumped out of the starting gate with his opposition on the Senate floor today. For a Republican Party that wants to change its image with Latino voters, it’s a dangerous strategy to let Jeff Sessions lead the beginning of the debate.

  • The House GOP Leadership Let Extremists take over the Reins While Bipartisan Group Forges On: This week Congressman Raul Labrador (R-ID) announced that he is no longer a part of the House bipartisan group. At the same time, the group announced that they are closer than ever to finalizing a bill–and even picked up the endorsement of Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI).  Meanwhile, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) are moving a bill that would expand Arizona’s SB 1070 to the rest of the nation and turn every law enforcement officer into an immigration agent. Congressman Steve King (R-IA) is also up to his old antics: this week Republicans passed an appropriations amendment filed late the night before by Rep. King that attacks DREAMers who have grown up in America and are American in all but paperwork.  The amendment to the Homeland Security Appropriations bill (which will certainly not survive the Senate) would restrict DHS from using any discretion in immigration enforcement, effectively undoing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and placing all DREAMers (even those who have received DACA approval) at risk of deportation. If the Republican Party does not want to be driven into oblivion, leaders like Speaker Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor will have to stand up to the Steve Kings of the world and work to pass real immigration reform with a path to citizenship.  The choice before Boehner and Cantor is clear: lead the Party in a fundamentally different immigration policy direction and improve its electoral competitiveness in the process, or let the GOP continue to be defined by the extremists. As Republican strategist Karl Rove warns in a new Wall Street Journal column of the impending Senate floor and amendment process, “Republicans must consider the impressions they will create by what they say, the changes they propose and their votes on the final product.”