Given the pivotal role that Hispanics played in the presidential election, it’s not surprising that a new and more reasonable tone has emerged in the debate over immigration reform, particularly from leading Republicans whose party got the blame for standing in the way of progress.
Senator Marco Rubio, a rising power in the party and its best hope for luring Hispanic voters into the GOP’s tent, said last week that the party had to change the way it talks about immigrants: “We’re not talking about plagues of locusts. We’re talking about people.” Given the harsh rhetoric some factions of the GOP have directed at Hispanics in the past, that’s a refreshing difference.
And then there was this from former President George W. Bush, who gamely advocated major changes in the immigration system during his eight years in the White House but couldn’t get his own party to go along, especially after 9/11: “As our nation debates the proper course of action relating to immigration, I hope we do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contributions of immigrants.”
Clearly, Sen. Rubio and former President Bush — as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — sense that the time is right to persuade fellow Republicans to turn the page. Some might dismiss this as a cynical ploy to get their party on the right side of the immigration debate before it loses another election, but their encouraging words should not be dismissed as mere politics. They are trying to lead, and the party — Congress as a whole — must follow because the handwriting is clearly on the wall about the direction of the country.
Sadly, some members of Congress haven’t gotten word. In their first crack at reform, House Republicans in the lame duck session approved a measure to increase the number of visas for immigrants with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math — at the cost of eliminating a lottery that provides 55,000 green cards a year to people from some countries.
The proposal is a non-starter. It doesn’t stand a chance of passage in the Senate. The notion that the way to justify an increase in immigration in one area is to reduce it in another shows that some Republicans still harbor a fundamental unwillingness to accept reform.
Lawmakers must find a path to legalization for some of the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in this country. They have to be brought out of the shadows. To date, however, nothing Congress has offered provides an incentive for them to step forward.
President Obama earlier this year offered a helping hand to young undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children, but that too just nibbles at the edges. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona have come up with a bill that offers a pathway to legalization for some illegal immigrants brought here as youngsters. That’s a step forward, but the bill doesn’t go far enough because it fails to provide a separate pathway to citizenship.
Any workable bill must have certain crucial provisions covering enforcement, both at the border and in the workplace, as well as an improved guest-worker program.
Approving the Dream Act, which would make an some 1.7 million young immigrants eligible for legal status, would be a good first step. But the opportunity of citizenship — a shot at the American Dream — for those already here is the key. Without this provision, attempts at reform are likely to fail and pro-immigration advocates are unlikely to be mollified.