For immigration reform, time could be of the essence

Immigration reformers feel that they have the momentum to push comprehensive immigration reform over the finish line, but critics want to ensure time to understand proposed changes.

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    US Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho answers questions on a range of issues, including immigration, at a town-hall meeting on Jan. 31, 2013, at Meridian City Hall in Meridian, Idaho. He is a leader among House conservatives in the bid for comprehensive immigration reform in Congress this year.
    Darin Oswald/The Idaho Stateman/AP/File
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 As immigration reform legislation percolates in closed-door, bipartisan working groups in the House and Senate, lawmakers are approaching their self-imposed deadline of mid-April to lay out actual legislation.

But, with opposition groups rallying their forces, the speed at which lawmakers can move to a vote could determine whether the legislation can make it to President Obama's desk at all.

Those working on immigration reform clearly feel that the wind is at their back right now.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California told the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday that an immigration bill would be finished before the summer, echoing remarks from leading immigration reformer Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois on Tuesday, who said that “the moment is right politically, and the further away we get from Election Day 2012, the less urgency there will be.”

That's also how Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho, Representative Gutierrez's counterpart among House conservatives, sees things – albeit with a little longer time window.

Without legislation that is “well on its way by the end of the year, I think you get into the silly season, the political season, and nothing is going to get done,” he says. “I hope that something is at least fully vetted by December.”

But between that timeline and political reality are a host of problems.

“There are a lot of things that have to fall into place in kind of a perfect fashion in a timeline that a lot of people are talking about in the next four to five months,” says Rebecca Tallent, a former chief of staff to immigration reform veteran Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who is now leading an immigration reform commission at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

Despite political pressure from all sides to get a deal done, lawmakers, particularly conservative Republicans, are loath to allow any legislation to be rushed across the House or Senate floors without a thorough vetting, including committee hearings.

In a letter to the Democratic chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama and five other Senate Republicans asked for months to review and hold hearings on a potential immigration reform compromise, so that "the public be given adequate time" to understand its implications.

But there’s also the practical side of taking time on a bill. Many lawmakers, especially after large turnover in Congress in recent years, have little experience handling immigration issues. Just under half the Senate, for example, has been elected since the last immigration reform debate in 2007, and massive electoral waves in recent House elections have left scores of new lawmakers.

In the House, where the Republican majority has held a half-dozen hearings that have drawn positive reviews from members of both parties, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia and his subcommittee chairman charged with immigration, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, are holding education sessions for House lawmakers about the complexities of the immigration system in order to prepare them for debate on an eventual bill.

“This is just the beginning of a process,” House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio told reporters Tuesday. “There's a lot of education that needs to be done because more than half of our members have never dealt with the issue of immigration reform, both on the legal side and on the illegal side.”

But bills that linger for weeks without being voted on risk a loss of momentum and being shot to pieces by outside interest groups on both sides. That’s what immigration reform advocates, by and large, see at work in the Republican senators’ call for more time to look at eventual legislation.

“We've been having debates about immigration for the past 10 years, and yet still these guys are trying duck and hide now that real reform is just around the corner,” said Frank Sharry, the head of America's Voice, an immigration advocacy group in Washington, in a statement. “Heads up, senators: immigrants and their families have already waited 27 years since the last time we passed comprehensive immigration reform. They should not be forced to wait any longer. And this delay tactic won't work.”

Whether more time is needed to defeat delay tactics or bow to practical realities, many are skeptical of Congress’s ability to finish a measure within only a few months.

“It would be overly optimistic to be talking about what we’re going to get done this spring or before the August recess,” says Haley Barbour, the former Republican governor of Mississippi and GOP wiseman who serves on the Bipartisan Policy Commission’s immigration reform task force.

Mr. Barbour noted in a talk with reporters at the BPC on Wednesday that policy debates in the both houses of Congress will take plenty of time to iron out. Barbour, who was President Reagan’s chief of staff during the last successful bid to overhaul the immigration system back in 1986, noted it took two full years to complete that bill.

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