WASHINGTON – Republicans and Democrats in the nation’s capital haven’t been able to find common ground on very much over the past few years but there are signs the two warring factions might prove willing to forge an alliance on the delicate issue of immigration.
President Obama and several lawmakers, particularly Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a conservative being groomed for a 2016 presidential run, acknowledge that immigration reform is soaring toward the top of this year’s must-do list. The looming issue may offer the sides something that has been exceedingly rare in Washington over the past four years – a bipartisan solution.
Obama, who will push his 2011 blueprint for immigration reform Tuesday in Las Vegas, has long expressed support for the issue but, by his own admission, did little to advance the cause during his first four years in office. In one interview he flatly said his inadequate effort was the biggest failure of his first term.
Speaking at a press conference a week after his successful re-election campaign in which he grabbed 66 percent of the Latino vote, Obama insisted the federal government “seize the moment” and adopt new policies that address the nation’s estimated 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants.
Republicans like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his 2008 presidential rival, have in the past supported immigration reform as did his predecessor, President George W. Bush. That background, Obama said, gives him confidence “we can get immigration reform done.” The president is expected to lay out his program no later than Feb. 12 – the date set for his State of the Union address.
Still, changes in immigration policy have proved elusive in recent times. There existed, for instance, bipartisan support for legislation titled the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, originally sponsored jointly by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in 2001. The proposal was intended to provide individuals brought into the U.S. by their parents without benefit of a visa a path toward permanent residency status and, potentially, citizenship.
The legislation in various semblances has bounced around for more than a decade without attracting the support required for passage, with opponents arguing the measure provided amnesty to those who entered the country illegally.
Obama entered the fray last summer when he announced the administration would halt the deportation of young illegal aliens – some of whom had no memory of ever having been in their home country – for two years or until Congress has an opportunity to consider their plight. That edict remains in effect.
Rubio has taken an active interest in the immigration debate, warning his fellow Republicans on occasion to cool what some considered anti-immigrant rhetoric – including remarks by the GOP’s 2012 standard bearer, Mitt Romney. Rubio has exhibited an inclination to address the predicament facing the so-called DREAM kids as part of a comprehensive legislative package under development — along with issues related to others who are in the country lacking proper documentation and border enforcement.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a longtime advocate for immigration reform, is one of those in a dialogue with Rubio, highlighting the potential for a bipartisan breakthrough.
“The only way I can push the immigration reform legislation forward is if I am in the room articulating the urgency that is being communicated to me by my constituents and Latino and immigrant voters across the country,” Gutierrez said. “Every single day we are deporting at least 250 parents with U.S. citizen children who wind up orphaned or uprooted. The clock is ticking and this Congress needs to act.”
During the last fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, 2012, 409,849 were deported, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Some of those were hardened criminals, Gutierrez said, but “hundreds of thousands of deportations are parents and bread-winners and heads of American families that are assets to American communities and have committed no crimes.”
“We must decide whether we want massive deportation to continue to be the policy of our nation or whether we want to take a smarter approach,” Gutierrez said. “I think we should recognize that families and individuals with deep ties to the U.S. live here and work here and yet have no way to get legal. We are deporting roughly 90,000 parents of U.S. citizens each year and often placing their children in foster care at taxpayer expense.”
Rubio has yet to unveil legislation but he has discussed his concepts with media outlets like The Wall Street Journal and on The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News. Under his plan, those in the country illegally will be required to present themselves and undergo a background check for national security purposes. They would also have to have lived in the U.S. for an as-yet unspecified period of time, pay back taxes, pay fines, and speak at least some English.
That, Rubio said, would earn those qualified a work permit allowing them to remain in the U.S. Those with a work permit cannot vote and are not qualified for any federal benefits like Social Security. Only after what Rubio describes as “a significant amount of time” could those with a work visa “get in line” for a green card. After that, citizenship would be at least an additional five years down the road.
In addition, Rubio has said border security needs to be bolstered along with workplace enforcement to halt employers from knowingly hiring undocumented workers.
None of that sounds too distant from what Obama has outlined.
“I think it should include a continuation of the strong border security measures that we’ve taken because we have to secure our borders,” Obama said of his plan during his post-election press conference. “I think it should contain serious penalties for companies that are purposely hiring undocumented workers and taking advantage of them. And I do think that there should be a pathway for legal status for those who are living in this country, are not engaged in criminal activity, are here simply to work. It’s important for them to pay back-taxes. It’s important for them to learn English. It’s important for them to potentially pay a fine. But to give them the avenue whereby they can resolve their legal status here in this country I think is very important.”
One area where the two plans could diverge is the DREAM Act. Last summer, Rubio said he was formulating his own version, one that would not include a glide path toward citizenship for those qualified. He dropped the idea when Obama announced the cessation of deportations.
“One thing that I’m very clear about is that young people who are brought here through no fault of their own, who have gone to school here, pledged allegiance to our flag, want to serve in our military, want to go to school and contribute to our society, that they shouldn’t be under the cloud of deportation, that we should give them every opportunity to earn their citizenship,” Obama said.
The president has expanded on his plans a bit further, asserting that the nation’s business community is looking to allow more high-skilled workers into the country, adding that, “if you’ve got a PhD in physics or computer science who wants to stay here and start a business here, we shouldn’t make it harder for him to stay here; we should try to encourage him to contribute to this society.”
Agriculture, he said, also is looking to expand its workforce. One possible answer is the creation of a guest-worker program. Rubio also has expressed support for the idea.
“So there are going to be a bunch of components to it but I think whatever process we have needs to make sure our border security is strong, needs to deal with employers effectively, needs to provide a pathway for the undocumented here, needs to deal with the DREAM Act kids,” Obama said. “And I think that’s something that we can get done.”
It appears the public approves of the approaches taken by both Obama and Rubio. A poll conducted by Anderson Robbins Research, a Democratic firm, and Shaw & Co. Research, a Republican outfit, for Fox News, conducted Jan. 15 through Jan. 17, showed that 66 percent of those surveyed support allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the country and eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship if they meet certain requirements like paying back taxes, learning English, and passing a background check. Only 17 percent favored sending them back to their home country while 13 percent endorsed a guest worker program.
Organizations devoted to stopping the influx of undocumented workers, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which endorses stricter border measures, reacted harshly to the plans.
“Don’t be fooled, ‘comprehensive immigration reform’ is just another code word for a big amnesty that will eventually grant citizenship to over 12 million illegal aliens,” the group said in a statement. “Although over 22 million Americans are out of work or underemployed and wages have seen no real growth, our elected representatives seem convinced that the only thing that will cure all of our economic ills is amnesty and a vast expansion of guest worker programs. Rather than enforcing our immigration laws and securing our borders, they choose to put special interest groups ahead of the American people.”
Some liberal groups maintain providing a path toward full citizenship for undocumented workers is in the nation’s best interest.
“As Congress takes up immigration reform this session, it would be wise to keep in mind the social and economic benefits that come with granting a pathway to full citizenship,” said Philip E. Wolgin, immigration policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. “The United States has always been a nation that thrives from fully integrating immigrants into the national polity, a nation of immigrants uniting around a common purpose. Anything less than granting a pathway to full citizenship is both un-American and runs counter to our nation’s best interests.”
Meanwhile, if neither Obama nor Rubio can piece together a solution amenable to all sides there is the Gang of Eight – a bipartisan group in the Senate trying to develop its own answer to the immigration issue. Led by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.,) the assemblage includes Durbin, McCain, Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).