Immigration reform still alive

The Democrats do not have unanimity for reform. In the Senate, many of the marginal members facing reelection in 2014 are running scared and fear the ammunition that their support for reform could give to their Republican challengers. 

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Sixty percent of America’s Latinos are concentrated in just four states: California, New York, Texas, and Florida. Add in Arizona and Illinois and you include 70 percent of national Latino population. The result is that congressmen from the other 44 states do not tend to have large concentrations of Hispanics in their districts and are vulnerable to a nativist backlash should they back reform.

These marginal Democrats are particularly sensitive to the twin issues of strengthening border security and stopping currently illegal immigrants from getting welfare, Medicaid, or ObamaCare benefits during the legalization process. Their voters would go ballistic if they opposed these amendments.

About half of the Republicans oppose immigration reform. Period. But the other half are basically for it — or feel they have to pass it to remain politically competitive as a party — but are extremely sensitive to the border security and entitlement issues.

In the Senate, the original Gang of Eight sponsors — led by New York Democrat Charles Schumer — want the original bill to pass, rejecting amendments on more security and fewer entitlements. But they probably cannot produce more than 40-45 votes for it among Democrats, and the Republicans, led by Florida’s Marco Rubio, are reluctant to vote for the bill without these two amendments.

In the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) is planning to bring the bill up in pieces rather than as a package. This strategy makes some sense. Republican members can pass bills on border security and entitlement curbs with largely GOP votes and can borrow Democratic support to pass amnesty for current immigrants and a path to citizenship for them. The citizenship path will probably pass with heavy Democratic support and a smattering of Republicans.

The key in the House will be to make any amnesty or citizenship path wholly contingent on border security enforcement, specifying that the process cannot begin until the border is sealed. This means that immigration reform, Republican-style, is a border security bill with amnesty and citizenship thrown in as an incentive and a reward for compliance. In that context, it will probably clear the House.

The Senate and the White House may rail against the Republican alternative, but they have no real choice but to pass it and sign it. Latinos are not opposed to border security per se and are not champing at the bit to see that currently illegal immigrants get welfare and ObamaCare. They want amnesty and a path to citizenship. If they have to swallow border security and entitlement curbs to get it, so be it. But they will not look kindly on Democrats who hold reform hostage to weaker security or entitlement expansion. (Just as they did not let Vermont Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy hold up immigration reform over the gay marriage issue).

By the same token, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would find it difficult to muster a majority against either the border security or entitlement amendments. Many of his Democrats would not want to be recorded as opposing tighter security or supporting expansion of entitlements.

So the Republicans will probably succeed in passing their version of reform in the House and in forcing a reluctant Senate and president to accept it. The ultimate bill will have to put border security first and grant amnesty only after the border is sealed. And it won't permit entitlements for the 13-year hiatus during which currently illegal immigrants are processing toward citizenship.

The bill that will emerge will be largely the work of the Republicans. Latinos would rather have immediate amnesty and citizenship, but they will learn to live with the eventual bill and come to forgive the Republicans for blocking reform efforts in the past. Eventually, their social and basic economic entrepreneurial views will draw them to the Republican Party and identity politics will lose its hold on our country’s politics.