Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle appear ready to move on immigration reform this spring, as President Obama prepares to make the issue a “top priority” of his second term.
On Monday, a group of eight senators introduced a framework for immigration-reform legislation that they hope to have ready by March. The plan would establish a “path to citizenship” for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S., contingent on a demonstrated improvement in terms of border security and other enforcement mechanisms. Younger immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents would be given a more streamlined path to citizenship, similar to the so-called DREAM Act.
Several members of the Senate group, which includes Democrats Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Bob Menendez (N.J.), and Michael Bennett (Colo.), along with Republicans John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), and Marco Rubio (Fla.), told reporters at a press conference Monday that they were optimistic about passing a comprehensive reform bill this year.
“We believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done,” Schumer said, though he also noted that there are “loads of pitfalls” as lawmakers translate the agreed-upon framework into actual legislation. Rubio called it an “important first step in what’s going to be a significant and complicated journey.”
McCain, a prominent supporter of previous failed immigration-reform efforts, was rather blunt when asked why this effort would be more successful. “Elections,” he said. “The Republican party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens,” and immigration is “a preeminent issue with those citizens.”
Rubio, who repeated some of his remarks in Spanish several times during the press conference, said he joined the bipartisan effort because the principles outlined in the agreement were “very similar, if not the same” as those contained in his own immigration proposal, which he described earlier this month in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. That plan has been applauded by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.).
The Florida Republican, considered by many to be a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, said lawmakers have “an obligation . . . to address the reality of the situation we face” in terms of illegal immigrants already living in the United States.
“We are dealing with 11 million human beings,” he said, although he emphasized that a pathway to citizenship would go forward only once broad enforcement mechanisms were implemented, in addition to “real progress and improvement at the border.”
At the moment, there appears to be at least an initial consensus in Washington as to how to proceed. President Obama, who will discuss his own vision for immigration reform Tuesday at a campaign-style event in Las Vegas, “strongly supports” the Senate framework, Schumer said. That framework also appears to be compatible with a bipartisan proposal in the House of Representatives. Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) announced last week that a group of lawmakers “basically [has] an agreement” after more than three years of secret talks, and said it is “time to deal” on immigration.
“The speaker welcomes the work of leaders like Senator Rubio on this issue, and is looking forward to learning more about the proposal in the coming days,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement Monday.
Republicans are anxiously awaiting the president’s speech in Nevada to see how he chooses to approach the issue. “I hope he will take a bipartisan approach rather than delivering another divisive partisan speech,” said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.).
Some are concerned that the president may eschew actual policy achievements over the next two years in favor of a political strategy aimed at returning Democrats to the House majority in 2014. GOP aides warn that if Obama chooses to politicize the issue and attack Republicans, it could seriously jeopardize the prospects for a comprehensive deal. “It will be disappointing if Obama ruins this moment,” one aide tells National Review Online.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Steve Israel (D., N.Y.) wasted no time challenging House Republicans on immigration. “What this comes down to now is — will these House Republicans, who have pandered to their intolerant tea-party base, who have fed into the extremism of that tea-party base, are they willing to stand up to the Tea Party and do what’s right for America?” Israel said Monday on MSNBC.
GOP insiders, many of whom privately acknowledge the need to improve the party’s reputation with Hispanic voters, point to Rubio’s involvement as an encouraging sign. Apart from the obvious facts that he is Hispanic and speaks fluent Spanish, Rubio is also a rising Republican star, key to the party’s future.
“He’s someone everyone wants to see succeed,” says an aide. “He’s got the credibility, and some breathing room, that most Republicans might not otherwise have [on immigration]. He’s in a position to rise above the fray and help Republicans find their footing.”
But plenty of doubts remain. Some Republicans suggest that Democrats will go to great lengths to deny Rubio any sort of victory on immigration that could boost his prospects for 2016. Most GOP congressmen would like to wait until there is an actual piece of legislation to vote on before forming an opinion, while some warn that the party is simply setting itself up for a phony compromise that delivers on “amnesty” for illegal immigrants but fails to produce meaningful results on border security and enforcement. “The fear [among Republicans] on this issue leads to irrational judgments,” suggested one GOP aide. “Why should enforcing the law be considered a concession?”
Enforcement is likely to be a major point of contention over the coming weeks. The Senate framework makes numerous mentions of efforts to “strengthen,” “improve,” and “enhance” current enforcement and security procedures. Any final piece of legislation would have to outline specific targets that must be met before initiating the process of granting citizenship to illegal residents, but it is unclear how that determination will be made.
“No comprehensive plan can pass Congress as long as this administration continues to defy existing federal law,” said Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.). “What good are promises of future enforcement when the administration covertly undermines those laws now in place?”
Regarding the proposed path to citizenship for those currently here illegally, freshman senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) expressed “deep concerns.” Cruz said in a statement that “to allow those who came here illegally to be placed on such a path is both inconsistent with the rule of law and profoundly unfair to the millions of legal immigrants who waited years, if not decades, to come to America legally.”
One positive development, notes a GOP aide, is the return to regular order in the Senate, a rarity during Harry Reid’s tenure as majority leader. Speaking on the Senate floor Monday, Reid announced his commitment to allow an immigration-reform package to be drafted in committee, marked up, and voted on with amendments, something Republicans have been demanding, particularly with respect to budget issues, for years. “Our best shot at getting positive results is if these things are done in the light of day,” the aide said.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.