By Mike Lillis - 01/29/13 10:00 AM EST
Despite the momentum growing behind comprehensive immigration reform, advocates face high hurdles in their fight for changes on an issue that has been a political third rail on Capitol Hill for more than a decade.
While President Obama and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle are optimistic they can enact the reforms that have eluded Washington policymakers for years, the immediate pushback from some conservatives is a clear signal that the debate will be fierce and no changes will come easily — or at all.
But President George W. Bush was similarly optimistic about the chances of his proposal at the time — “I’ll see you at the bill-signing,” he famously said — only to see the effort fall at the hands of his fellow Republicans in the House.
Immigration reformers on both sides of the aisle are hoping for a different ending this time around, but they're also not holding their breath.
Former Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), an original supporter of the DREAM Act and a sponsor of several other bills, said November's election results were "like a two-by-four to the forehead" of Republican leaders who "have realized how stupid their position has been."
But he warned that conservative Republicans could still sink the effort to overhaul the system.
"The intransigents who would rather carp about a potential problem than look for a solution, they'll do whatever they can [to kill the proposed reforms]," Cannon said Monday by phone. "I think it's fair to question their political motivations.
"What I see [passing] and what I hope are radically different," he added, referring to the prospects for significant reform this year.
Jamie Longazel, a sociology professor specializing in immigration politics at the University of Dayton, echoed that concern. He said he's "cautiously optimistic" some form of immigration reform will reach the president's desk, but not before there's a "long, drawn-out fight" over "one of the most divisive issues" in U.S. politics.
"It's going to be very difficult, and I'm not as optimistic of it passing through the House as I am through the Senate," Longazel said Monday. "It's going to get a little bit ugly."
The issue of immigration reform has become a top issue in the 113th Congress largely as a result of November's elections, which saw more than 70 percent of Hispanic voters choose Obama over GOP contender Mitt Romney. Republicans — long opposed to comprehensive reform, particularly so-called "amnesty" provisions that would carve a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants — have since appeared to soften their position in an effort to attract more Latino support. And Obama and the Democrats are eager to seize the rare political opening.
Immigration reformers say both the problems plaguing the immigration system and the solutions now being proposed on Capitol Hill are largely the same as they were eight years ago. It's the politics that have changed, they argue, as an ever-growing number of Hispanic voters have been energized by an escalation in deportations and the anti-immigration rhetoric coming from some conservative circles on and off Capitol Hill.
"Everything that everyone's talking about looks more or less like the things that [immigration reformers] were talking about in 2005," a House Democratic aide familiar with the debate said Monday. "The political moment has changed because the Latino vote is ever larger, more organized and [felt] pushed away by the Republicans — particularly by Mitt Romney."
Republican leaders seem to recognize the perils of alienating large numbers of Hispanic voters, particularly in national elections, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) vowed last year to work with Obama to overhaul the nation's immigration system.
The House Judiciary Committee, headed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), a former immigration lawyer, is expected to examine the issue of reform early next month. And Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the Immigration subpanel, gave reform advocates a dash of hope Monday when he voiced support for "proposals which balance the humanity which defines us as a people with respect for the rule of law which defines us as a republic."
Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America's Voice, a group that advocates for immigrant rights, said the openness of House Republicans to reform marks a huge shift between this year and the 2006 debate.
"There just wasn't the political space back then [for House Republicans]," she said Monday, predicting a reform bill will reach Obama this Congress.
Fueling the reform push, a bipartisan group of powerful senators unveiled a sweeping immigration-reform blueprint Monday that takes elements from both parties' legislative wish-lists.
The package features efforts to strengthen border security and better track temporary visitors to ensure they leave the country when their visas expire — provisions favored by Republicans. The proposal would also create a path to citizenship for the roughly 12 million illegal immigrants estimated to be living in the United States — a change favored by Democrats.
The package has been endorsed by four Democrats — Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.) — and four Republicans, Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.).
Obama is expected to outline a similarly broad approach on Tuesday in Las Vegas.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), Congress's most vocal immigrant-rights advocate, said Monday that Congress is "on track to pass a bipartisan bill" this year.
Still, few observers are predicting an easy fight, and major battles are sure to swirl around hot-button questions like how to register millions of immigrants while simultaneously protecting their civil liberties, and whether gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender immigrants will benefit from the reforms.
Immigrant-rights advocates will also be watching closely to see what hoops illegal immigrants will have to jump through to remain in the country legally. Rubio, for instance, is urging that any immigrants granted legal status must "go to the back of the line" behind others who have officially applied — a process that can take many years, some warned this week.
"It takes 21 years, sometimes, to get to the front of the line," Longazel said.
The citizenship provision, however, will likely prove the thorniest; some conservatives on Capitol Hill are already hammering the Senate's bipartisan blueprint over it.
"When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration," Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said Monday in a brief statement. "By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration.”
NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for tougher immigration laws, also blasted the Senate proposal, vowing to mobilize its supporters against it.
Rosemary Jenks, the group's director of government affairs, characterized the blueprint as " 'Amnesty 2.0' — meaningless enforcement measures, mass amnesty and increases in legal immigration, with taxpayers left to foot the bill.”
Such opposition will leave Boehner and other GOP leaders trying to perform the delicate dance of attracting Hispanic voters without alienating their conservative base.
Gutierrez, for one, was undeterred by the political complexities surrounding the issue this week, focusing instead on the rare case of Congress agreeing, at the very least, that immigration reform in some measure is a good idea.
"The most important thing right now is to keep the various efforts moving forward," he said, "and not to draw lines in the sand."