Politics 2013: Is third time a charm for immigration reform?

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International  |  Feb. 3, 2013 at 7:01 AM
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Both President Obama and Congressional members on both sides of the aisle say they want to fix the country's immigration system, which Obama called "out of date and badly broken."

Obama put immigration reform on the front burner of his second term, releasing his three-pronged plan to tighten border security, help 11 million undocumented immigrants earn citizenship and streamline the process for legal immigrants.

Eight senators also introduced their framework for immigration reform that would allow illegal immigrants earn their citizenship but ties that to improved border security.

The president indicated he'd let Congress take the lead -- but if it gets bogged down on Capitol Hill, he said he wouldn't hesitate to send his own bill and insist that Congress "act on it right away."

"[We] have an immigration system that's out of date and badly broken," he said, "a system that's holding us back instead of helping us grow our economy and strengthen our middle class."

Why the bipartisan efforts -- which have their detractors -- to tackle immigration reform? A cynical answer would be to look at the changing demographics of voters and their candidates of choice.

Or the president and Congress are looking at their respective agendas and found this was one issue that could be passed, albeit with difficulty.

After being shot down twice in recent years, immigration reform's time is apparently now and. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said recently, maybe the third time would, indeed, be the charm. Graham was one of the gang of eight.

Before outlining his immigration plan last week at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Obama said a "broad consensus is emerging and ... a broad call for action can be heard from all across America" for "common sense immigration reform."

"The good news is that -- for the first time in many years -- Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together," Obama said. "Members of both parties, in both chambers, are actively working on a solution ... At this moment, it looks like there's a genuine desire to get this done soon. And that's very encouraging."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he welcomed the senators' blueprint, even though it includes a path to citizenship for many of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants, something conservatives generally oppose.

Boehner said a bipartisan group in the House "basically [has] an agreement" on immigration reform, The Hill reported. That group, he said, included both "hard heads" in his own party and Democrats who have long pushed for comprehensive reform.

Obama's proposal, as previewed on the White House website, differs in at least one key point from the senators' framework -- the requirement the U.S. border with Mexico be deemed secure before letting anyone illegally in the United States get citizenship.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called the gang of eight's proposal a "major breakthrough."

"The key to our compromise is to recognize that Americans overwhelming oppose illegal immigration, and support legal immigration," Schumer said. "To this end, our framework contains four basic pillars. First we create a tough, but fair path to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently living in the United States that is contingent upon securing our borders. Second, we reform our legal immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen American families."

"Third, we create an effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers," he said. "And lastly, we establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation's workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers."

The other senators who worked on the proposal were Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, and rising star Marco Rubio of Florida.

To be sure, the senators' plan drew criticism as well as praise.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, a longtime opponent of granting legal status to illegal immigrants, disparaged the Senate framework.

"When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration," Smith said. "By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the key business lobby, said it supports the senators' work, The Washington Post said.

"We know that many details will need to be worked out, but we are very encouraged by this framework for reform," Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Donohue said.

The American Civil Liberties Union voiced opposition to the plan's emphasis on border security, saying it would grow an enforcement regime already "on steroids" even though illegal immigration from Mexico is at a 40-year low, Roll Call said.

The ACLU also ripped the plan's proposed nationwide employment verification system as a "thinly disguised national ID requirement that undermines the privacy of every American worker."

Mark S. Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, blogged that the plan regurgitated "the same tired package of immediate amnesty for all illegals plus huge increases in future immigration" in exchange for promised enforcement "that should already be happening anyway."

The senators' plan also calls for a commission of officials from border states to evaluate progress in securing the border and help define when enough progress has been made for other aspects of the proposal -- potentially including citizenship applications -- to proceed, Roll Call said.

"I don't think anyone has proposed that before," said Susan Cohen, founder and chairwoman of the immigration practice at Mintz Levin, a law firm in Boston.

The real sticking point remains creating a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented workers already in the United States.

"We have an obligation and a need to address the reality of the situation that we face," Rubio, considered a 2016 presidential contender and who delivered a keynote address during the Republican National Convention, said during news conference on the senators' framework.

Republican strategists told the Post Rubio, elected in 2010 with the backing of the Tea Party movement, likely has the most to gain or lose by attaching his name to the project.

"This is going to be tough for Republicans and the recidivist elements in our party," said GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, a Cuban-American."It will all be fine until there is a GOP primary, say for president, and one candidate breaks out as the anti-immigration candidate and appeals to GOP fears and not hopes."

Rubio showed his conservative bones in winning the Senate seat and likely has "some inoculation to the downside risk because he has 'street cred' with the coalition of the party that has the greatest concern about this issue," said Rob Jesmer, former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and now a partner at FP1 Strategies.

During an appearance on Fox News Channel, Rubio said, "[It's] a good moment to remind people and the country that the vast majority of conservatives favor legal immigration, and we don't have a legal immigration system that works right now. And our problem with illegal immigration is that it undermines legal immigration."

McCain said in an interview on MSNBC he believed Republicans would rally around the blueprint if, for no reason, than numbers of voters.

If not, the party would be on a "descent toward irrelevancy," McCain said.

Obama won a staggering 71 percent of the Latino vote to 27 percent for Republican challenger Mitt Romney exit polls indicated. Against McCain in 2008, Obama was backed by 67 percent of that demographic.

But passing immigration reform won't be a cure-all for the Republicans, even though it might help.

A pre-2012 election Pew Hispanic Center survey indicated a majority of Hispanic voters said education, healthcare and jobs/the economy were "extremely important" to them. Just more than a third -- 34 percent --said the same about immigration.

Jamie Longazel, a sociology professor specializing in immigration politics at the University of Dayton in Ohio, told The Hill he is "cautiously optimistic" that some form of immigration reform will reach Obama's desk, but only after a "long, drawn-out fight."

"It's going to be very difficult, and I'm not as optimistic of it passing through the House as I am through the Senate," Longazel said. "It's going to get a little bit ugly."

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