Americans support it. Latino voters expect it. Democrats want it. Republicans need it.
That’s how Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., describes the political landscape as Congress again turns its attention to the volatile subject of immigration reform.
Menendez was interviewed Sunday on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” a day before he and other members of a bipartisan Senate work group shared the framework of their plan to overhaul the system.
On the same show, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was for comprehensive immigration reform before he was against it, explained why he’s for it again: “Look at the last election.”
McCain was talking about the 70 percent of Latinos who voted for President Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney. But there are other metrics, too.
An Associated Press poll this month found that 62 percent of Americans — including 53 percent of Republicans — favor a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here. Yes, the dreaded “amnesty.” Two years ago, those numbers were 50 percent and 31 percent, respectively.
When it comes to fixing the system, Americans said they trust Democrats more than Republicans, 41 percent to 34 percent. Two years ago, Republicans had the edge, 46 to 41.
In a few short years, immigration reform has gone from politically poisonous to politically expedient. That means that instead of pointing fingers and doing nothing, the parties are motivated to work together.
It’s encouraging that the bipartisan Senate group seems committed to a comprehensive overhaul that balances security against the nation’s ever-shifting appetite for legal workers.
Anything less, in the words of former first brother and possible GOP presidential contender Jeb Bush, would be “shortsighted and self-defeating.” Bush, who has a book on immigration due out in March, co-wrote an op-ed that appeared in The Wall Street Journal last week. “The best way to prevent illegal immigration is to make sure that we have a fair and workable system of legal immigration,” he wrote. Hear, hear.
Those 11 million people aren’t here because the U.S. failed to build a big enough fence at the border; they’re here because American businesses beckoned them with illegal jobs and the feds looked the other way. Perhaps 40 percent arrived legally but didn’t leave when their visas expired. The government winked at that, too. Why? Because the dysfunctional immigration system can’t supply the workers our economy needs.
Even at a time of high unemployment, there are shortages at both ends of the job spectrum. Crops rot in the fields for lack of laborers to pick them. Foreign students educated at our finest universities take their high-tech skills overseas because they can’t get visas to stay here.
The Senate work group outlined its plan Monday, a day ahead of Obama’s own policy statement. The senators expect the president’s plan to be more generous, particularly when it comes to legalization of the 11 million already here. They’re also bracing for resistance from conservatives, particularly Republicans in the House, who continue to insist that border security must come before other reforms.
The bipartisan plan would set standards for border enforcement and create a commission of governors, police and others to determine when those benchmarks had been met. It would create a tracking system to make sure those who are granted visas don’t overstay them. It would require employers to verify that they are hiring legal workers.
It would revamp the visa system to ensure that the nation’s labor needs could be met legally.
Most of the 11 million could apply for probationary status to live and work here legally. They would have to register, pay fines and back taxes and undergo background checks. That classification would not make them eligible for most federal benefits.
After the enforcement benchmarks are met, those immigrants could apply for legal residency, a first step toward citizenship, but that’s going to be a big sticking point.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential Republican candidate for president, is concerned about rewarding those who broke the law at the expense of those still waiting in line. Others point out that waiting in line can take decades, thanks to decades of gridlock on immigration reform.
Is that gridlock finally on the verge of breaking? With pressure coming from both sides now, there is hope.