Advancing the Debate: Why 2013 Is (or Isn’t) Right for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Pundits think the stars are aligned for comprehensive immigration reform.
by | February 4, 2013

Since eight U.S. senators announced their bipartisan plan for comprehensive immigration reform Jan. 28, pundits and politicians have dusted off their crystal balls to predict what might happen.

“ For the first time in many years, Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together,” said President Barack Obama, who articulated a plan echoing the senators’ principles for reform. “But I promise you this: The closer we get, the more emotional this debate is going to become.”

“Lawmakers tried it in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2010 -- and failed,” writes Niraj Chokshi of the National Journal. He argues this year is different because the Obama administration has met or exceeded many of the border security goals set under President George W. Bush; the rising Republican/Tea Party star from Florida, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, backs this plan; the American public suffers from “terrorism fatigue,” meaning it’s more receptive to legal pathways to citizenship for current residents here illegally and less supportive of deportation; and finally, new immigrants, especially Latinos, represent potential boons as a voting bloc and a much-needed workforce in both low- and high-skilled positions.

Elizabeth Dwoskin of Bloomberg Businessweek lists slightly different reasons why a comprehensive reform bill has a decent shot of becoming law this year. For instance, the founder of a super PAC that campaigned for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney last election has created a new PAC to boost pro-immigrant candidates and attack anti-immigrant ones. Also, unions have signaled their support for a comprehensive solution, unlike in 2007 when they were split because of a proposed guest-worker program. Dwoskin notes that the Obama administration also appeased unions by advancing a regulation in July 2012 that would make it harder for employers to get around a requirement to prove that they couldn’t find a U.S. worker capable of doing the same high-skilled job.

One reason reform is on the table -- aside from electoral politics -- is that state solutions proved to have limited success, according to one assessment in Arizona. “We’ve moved beyond Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration hysteria,” writes Joseph Garcia, a guest columnist for The Arizona Republic.* “What wasn’t deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court was deemed unjust and unenforceable by the Obama administration, as well as by most law-enforcement agencies that preferred to focus on local crime, not a broken national immigration policy.” The way Garcia tells it, the Arizona law that allowed police to stop anyone and ask for proof of citizenship might have been a catalyst for the national movement’s new momentum.

Still some policy advocates are cool to the idea of comprehensive reform, even if Chokshi and Dwoskin are correct in their prognostications. “Act on small pieces of immigration one at a time,” blogs James R. Edwards, Jr., a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that labels itself as “pro-immigrant” but also in favor of “low immigration.”

Edwards argues the best approach would be to start “with enforcement in the interior and in the workplace involving state and local police, at the border, and allowing a couple of years for consistent enforcement to decrease the size of the illegal alien population before addressing more contentious issues like guestworkers and legalization.”

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, has voiced similar skepticism about the merits of a comprehensive plan, calling it “promises of enforcement with an immediate amnesty.” U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, has also said he wants to see proof of stricter security controls before even considering ways to allow more immigrants to pursue citizenship.

Yet former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush co-wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal demanding exactly the opposite: “Congress should avoid such quick fixes and commit itself instead to comprehensive immigration reform … Such an approach is shortsighted and self-defeating. Border security is inextricably intertwined with other aspects of immigration policy. The best way to prevent illegal immigration is to make sure that we have a fair and workable system of legal immigration. The current immigration system is neither.”

*This story has been updated to reflect that Joseph Garcia wrote a guest column for the Arizona Republic. An earlier version incorrectly stated that he was a columnist.

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