How President Obama can lead on immigration reform

While I am acutely aware of the fact that our president's cupboard is empty of political capital, he does have one last card to play that would enable him to assume leadership on immigration reform. There is one thing that is within his power that would enable him pass immigration reform by the January 15th deadline for passing our nation's budget, and even to be able to pass this reform in such a way that would most probably preserve his coveted "earned pathway to citizenship." How, you ask? Simple; tie immigration reform to passing the budget. Strike a "grand bargain," that would couple immigration reform, and include the $175 billion in revenue that the CBO has scored for passage of the legislation during its first 10 years after enactment to the budget. It would be a win-win for the president.

Why, you ask, would Republicans give the President such a victory? Simple; as an exchange for giving the President this pathway to citizenship, the House would receive another $175 billion in deficit reduction in the budget negotiations. However, and more importantly, while the President would get his earned pathway to citizenship for those among the 11 million who could qualify as written in the Senate's immigration bill, the balance of the bill, including border security, interior enforcement, E-verify, high skilled visas, low skilled visas, guest-worker visas, and Ag-worker visas, would all be conferenced using the House's bills as the template. In other words, while the legalization provisions of the bill would be based on the Senate's bill, all other aspects of immigration reform would be based on the House's legislation.

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Most members, including Republicans, in the House want to pass some kind of immigration reform. They are struggling with the appropriate legalization vehicle, and they are reluctant to conference on the Senate's large comprehensive bill. This compromise takes that fear out of the equation. They would compromise on the more generous Senate legalization provisions, while achieving the more rigorous House "piecemeal" versions of the enforcement provisions. It is a fair trade for both sides, and would be a win-win for the Republicans as well.

The Republicans would get tough enforcement provisions that would, in fact, largely end the seemingly never-ending stream of illegal immigration, while enabling them to actually pass the immigration reform that would allow them to compete over time for the Hispanic and Asian votes. By coupling this legislation with the budget negotiations, they can enact tough budget cuts while still preserving the social safety net that another $175 billion over 10 years could provide. Many Republicans have put immigration reform on the shelf, because there has been no pressing reason to pass the legislation now. This compromise gives immigration reform the time-sensitive mandate and inertia that the legislation needs to move immediately.

The president has the ideal Republican partner to strike this deal, because the lead Republican handling these budget negotiations is Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Ryan is not only the architect of the Republican Party's budget, he is one of the lead proponents of immigration reform. This is a deal that is within the president's reach, and within his constitutional authority. This is a deal that is doable - something that has become exceedingly rare in today's modern Washington. I am not saying that this is our last chance to enact immigration reform in this Congress, but I believe that this might be our best and most pragmatic chance.

Finally, this deal would be a win-win for our nation. $175 billion over the next 10 years could go a long way toward relieving the financial burden of the hastily enacted "sequester" cuts. Perhaps more importantly, we can end the scourge of illegal immigration once and for all, and do so in a fair, tough yet compassionate, and morally correct manner. By bringing the millions of undocumented individuals and their extended families out of the societal shadows, this legislation as proposed above, while very tough on future illegal immigration, importantly would not be amnesty. It would be very rigorous on the undocumented folks that would be elevated into the American mainstream, and would allow these individuals to earn the right to pursue the American Dream that is at the heart of our nation's exceptionalism.

I'm a conservative. I make no excuse for that. However, it gives me no pleasure to see our president fail. I didn't vote for our president in the 2012 election, but he is still my president. I want to see him succeed in areas that move our nation forward, and the proposed deal as outlined above moves our nation out of the intractable problem of a broken immigration system, and improves our nation's economic outlook. That is a win-win for our entire nation. 

The president is not operating from a position of strength, and I am keenly aware of the fact that what I am proposing is a very heavy lift. Many will say that this idea is a pipe dream. However, we elect our presidents precisely because we expect them to do the heavy lifting, and this president is no exception to that rule. As our president, Barack Obama has the power to make this deal happen, and I pray that he will use this opportunity to strengthen his legacy, and to help preserve what is so great about our nation. We have the greatest economy in the history of the world, and this deal would strengthen our economy. More importantly, we have built the greatest society in the history of the world, and we have built our nation through "legal" immigration. This deal would both heal and strengthen our legal immigration system, and protect the American exceptionalism ideal that is at the very core of the greatness that the Lord has bestowed upon the United States of America.

Gittelson is vice president for Governmental Affairs at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

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