The rapidly changing mood in Washington on immigration, particularly evident in the willingness of prominent Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio of Miami to challenge diehard opponents of reform within their own party, represents a significant milestone in the long fight to ensure fairness for everyone living within America’s borders.
Rarely has the power of the vote on a divisive national issue been so evident and so immediate. And so useful. The turnaround comes as a direct consequence of a quadrennial election in which President Obama won a second term after capturing 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, forcing immigration opponents to confront reality.
As Sen. John McCain acknowledged recently, “We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours.” Welcome to the future, sir. Immigration advocates have been insisting all along that the issue is one of fairness, given that undocumented immigrants perform a vital service by taking low-wage jobs that keep the economy humming but which many Americans shun.
In good times, they provide cheap manpower for building booms. They toil on our farms, clean our yards and homes, wash our cars and our clothes, even look after our children and elderly parents — but are relegated to the shadows because of unrealistic immigration laws that deny them a chance to move up the ladder.
This week, the fairness argument and the political argument finally came together as eight senators of both parties — including Sen. Rubio and Sen. McCain — offered a joint plan to reform immigration, with President Obama applauding their plan and offering his own blueprint to bring 11 million undocumented residents out of the shadows.
The willingness to work in a bipartisan fashion is encouraging. It’s the way Congress should work. But even though the moment is ripe for change, this is far from a done deal. The tactic of endless hearings and procedural wrangling almost killed healthcare reform and will doubtlessly be tried again to kill an immigration overhaul.
Supporters of change must be prepared to overcome this likely obstacle. Among the thorniest issues will be enforcement, with Sen. Rubio among those saying that a failure to focus on keeping our borders safe would be a deal-breaker.
Clearly, enforcement is important. No one wants a repetition of what occurred in the 1980s, when the last immigration overhaul led to a new tide of immigrants hoping to take advantage of relaxed laws.
But enforcement advocates must be realistic. There is no way to seal the borders hermetically. Already, net immigration from Mexico has been around zero for several years, while deportations have soared and the border is protected as never before. How much is enough?
In the weeks and months ahead, there will be opportunity to assess the proposals in Congress. For the moment, it is important to note that the bipartisan proposals put forward propose a sweeping reform instead of the slower step-by-step approach that would have been far less effective. This alone is a victory for reform advocates.
So is the insistence on a path to citizenship, as opposed to mere “legalization,” which is tantamount to permanent second-class status. If weak enforcement is a deal-breaker for some, a failure to include a path to citizenship is a deal breaker for others.
Polls consistently reflect public support for reforming the nation’s immigration laws. Congress, time to move on it.