Immigration politics

The chances of immigration reform being signed into law are better than 50-50, but it is no sure thing.

The last time immigration reform was this close to passing Congress was in 2007, when then-President George W. Bush said, “I’ll see you at the bill signing.” It didn’t happen.

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Both Democrats and Republicans rejected the 2006 and 2007 immigration reform bills. Procedural issues, such as amendments that were used as “poison pills,” helped torpedo the legislation.

Six years later, the politics of immigration reform have changed dramatically. 

President Obama and Republicans in Congress have incentives to pass a bill in 2013. Obama repeatedly vowed to sign an immigration bill into law throughout his first term. But the president deemed healthcare and climate change higher priorities, sparking criticism from immigration-reform proponents.

Republican leaders have reevaluated their position in the wake of Obama attracting more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote against Mitt Romney. In order to win elections, the GOP must embrace immigration reforms, including a path to citizenship. 

The Senate is taking the lead on the issue, with the House expected to act in the late spring or summer. 

Eight senators from both sides of the aisle have signed on to a document titled “Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Reform.” The immigration Gang of Eight includes Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a possible White House candidate in 2016, and Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), who is in charge of retaining the Democratic majority in the 2014 election.

The framework must be turned into legislation and passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It is noteworthy that neither Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) nor ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is in the Gang of Eight. 

The immigration reform framework released by the eight senators lacks some important details. 

For example, the document states that the bill would “create a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.” 

How long would this path take? Surely it would be shorter than the 2007 House bill sponsored by then-Rep. and now-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). At that time, Flake said, “The fastest anyone here could become a citizen would be more than 15 years.” Flake is in the Gang of Eight.

Similarly, illegal immigrants would have to pay back taxes and a fine. How big will the fine be?

Individuals with “a serious criminal background” would be ineligible for legal status. How will that term be defined?

Will the final bill have a “touchback” provision requiring illegal immigrants to return to their home countries before being allowed to live in the U.S. legally?

Clearly, there is a long way to go before a reform measure is signed into law, but there’s still a good chance of a bipartisan signing ceremony at the White House later this year.