Look to the next 100 days for historic breakthrough on immigration reform

The first 100 days of President Obama’s second term has already delivered more progress on immigration reform than the 1,000-plus days of his first term. The first four years were dominated by Republican obstruction, Democrats’ inability to deliver on their pro-reform promises and the Obama administration’s record deportations. This term, thanks to the leadership of the Senate Gang of Eight, there is bipartisan energy driving immigration reform toward a historic legislative breakthrough. Over the next 100 days, look for the Senate to pass reform with a strong bipartisan vote and for the House to find a way to get a bipartisan immigration bill to the president’s desk for signature. 

What a difference an election makes.

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During the 2012 election, GOP nominee Mitt Romney adopted an anti-immigrant position that cost him dearly with Latino, Asian American and immigrant voters. He embraced a radical idea — self-deportation — that called for ridding the country of 11 million undocumented immigrants by making their lives so miserable they would be forced to pick up and leave the country. The 11 million include people here for a generation, raising children, paying taxes, aspiring to the American dream. The 11 million include DREAMers — Americans in all but paperwork. The 11 million are not criminals; they are Americans-in-waiting.

Meanwhile, Obama decided to do something other than deport those whom, as a candidate, he had promised to put on a path to citizenship. He made a bold executive move to protect DREAMers. Not only did the policy change save hundreds of thousands of young people, it boosted Latino voter enthusiasm and turnout. Twelve million Latino voters, 10 percent of the total vote, voted for Obama by a 3-1 margin. States with growing Hispanic electorates that the pro-immigration-reform George W. Bush carried just eight years ago — Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico — went for Obama.

Many Republicans got the message. Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) have stepped up to negotiate and help pass a conservative-leaning version of reform. In the House, Reps. John Carter (R-Texas), Sam Johnson (R-Texas), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) are doing much the same. If they succeed, immigration reform that combines the toughest border security in American history with a long but accessible path to citizenship will make it across the finish line this year. In addition to helping solve a problem that the American people want fixed, passage of immigration reform will help Congress regain some credibility with the country and help the GOP regain its competitiveness with the fastest-growing groups of voters in the nation. 

Some Republicans have not gotten the message. At recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) strained to connect the Boston terrorist attacks to the immigration bill in hopes of delaying and derailing the push for reform. Then Grassley called as a witness the infamous Kris Kobach, author of the “show me your papers” laws in Arizona and Alabama and an immigration adviser to Romney’s campaign, who said, “self-deportation is not some radical idea.” However, as leaders ranging from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) pointed out, the immigration reform bill will strengthen already fortified background checks in numerous ways and make the country safer. And, as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, the American people voted on self-deportation last November — and it lost, badly.

Kobach’s comment is a reminder of the choices ahead for the Republicans in the Senate and the House. The anti-immigrant wing of the GOP, led by Grassley and Sens. David Vitter (La.) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.) in the Senate and by Reps. Lamar Smith (Texas), Steve King (Iowa) and Louie Gohmert (Texas) in the House, are using the same old-playbook to thwart reform. Every move they make is designed to stop reform and maintain the status quo — namely, an enforcement-only strategy that keeps 11 million people unprotected, in the shadows and out of reach of the legal system. But, it’s 2013, not 2007. This time it’s different — very, very different. Comprehensive reform anchored by enforcement and a path to citizenship has the overwhelming support of the nation.

Over the next 100 days, the choice for the GOP will be stark and momentous. Follow the lead of modernizers who want to solve a tough problem based on conservative values and reopen diplomatic relations with Latino voters, or follow the lead of those who want to continue the status quo and threaten the party’s viability as a national party. There’s only one way out of the hole the GOP has dug itself: pass reform and share credit for doing so.

Sharry is the founder and executive director of America’s Voice.