Immigration reform: Is 'amnesty' a possibility now?

Congress seems primed to address immigration reform in 2013, and even a path to citizenship – which critics deride as 'amnesty' for illegals – may be on the table. The shift in the national conversation came suddenly. Here's why. 

Dave Martin/AP
Maurcio Martell and his family stand on the porch of their home in Bessemer, Ala. The Martells are among some 12 million illegal immigrants living in the US whose lives could be affected if Congress takes up immigration reform in 2013.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection/AP
Suspected smugglers attempted to drive over the US-Mexican border fence near Yuma, Ariz., using a makeshift ramp in October. The vehicle got stuck at the top of the 14-foot fence; the occupants fled back to Mexico.

The momentum of President Obama's resounding victory in November's election – with a big push from Latinos and other minority groups – has catapulted immigration policy to the top of Washington's 2013 agenda, making reform not only possible but also likely.

The shift in the political conversation has been so dramatic that even a pathway to citizenship for some of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States – long rejected out of hand by most Republicans and some Democrats – could be part of the deal.

The task is momentous. It involves weighing the wishes of industries from agriculture to high-tech, as well as the sensitivities of opening the door to immigrant workers at a time when unemployment remains high.

The past only reinforces the potential difficulties ahead. In 1986, Republicans felt betrayed when Democrats stripped the enforcement provisions from a bill that offered citizenship to some 3 million illegal immigrants. By 2005, the issue had become so politically toxic to conservatives that they blocked President George W. Bush's push for a new round of immigration reform.

Yet with Election 2012 highlighting the electoral consequences of America's changing demographics, the next year appears to be ripe for compromise. How reforms might take shape could be a major point of contention between the parties, but lawmakers on both sides suddenly see an opportunity for what could be their most expansive achievement of 2013.

"It has to be in 2013," says Rep. Raúl Labrador (R) of Idaho, an immigration lawyer who thundered into Congress in the tea party wave of 2010. "If we wait until 2014, it's going to be election time. And you know how efficient we are here during election time."

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill. In the Senate, a "Gang of Eight" – led by longtime immigration reformers Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York and Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – has added freshman Sens. Michael Bennett (D) of Colorado and Mike Lee (R) of Utah, while potential 2016 presidential aspirant Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida leads his own initiative.

Members of the House have seen movement, too. "One thing clearly has changed," says Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, the lawmaker who co-wrote a 2005 comprehensive immigration reform measure with now Sen.-elect Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona. "Nobody is talking about self-deportation. Nobody is talking about how [Arizona's controversial immigration law] should be the standard applied across the land. Nobody is talking about vetoing the DREAM Act," which offers a path to citizenship for some young undocumented immigrants.

"We are having wonderful conversations," Representative Gutierrez says.

That more moderate tone from the GOP is what the November election has wrought.

In a postelection analysis and poll of Latino voters, Republican polling group Resurgent Republic offered a searing critique of the GOP's political strategy of pumping up turnout among white voters, often by championing hard-line policies on immigration issues that turn off key Asian and Hispanic voters.

"Republicans have run out of persuadable white voters," wrote conservative pollster Whit Ayres and Jennifer Korn, the head of the right-leaning Hispanic Leadership Network, in a recent research memo. "Trying to win a national election by gaining a larger and larger share of a smaller and smaller portion of the electorate is a losing political proposition."

Between 2008 and 2012, white voters shrank two percentage points to 72 percent of the electorate, while Asian and Latino voters expanded a percentage point each to 3 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

While GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney won 60 percent of white voters, 71 percent of Latinos and 73 percent of Asian-Americans backed Mr. Obama – up four percentage points and 11 percentage points from 2008, respectively.

And those numbers of minority voters are only going to grow. For the next two decades, 50,000 Latino voters will turn 18 every month, adding an additional New Hampshire of voters to the US each year into the 2030s.

While Resurgent Republic's poll showed that Hispanics aren't singularly focused on immigration issues, Republican politicians who favor immigration reform see the issue as primary: The GOP's message of conservative family values, entrepreneurship, and individual freedom won't reach Latino voters unless the immigration question is solved.

"This is like a wall that stops the other issues from getting through," says Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) of Florida, a longtime immigration reform advocate. "And while that wall is there, the Republican Party has a serious problem."

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio signaled a shift when he told ABC News a day after the election that "a comprehensive approach [to immigration] is long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself, others, can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all."

That's a departure from previous immigration-reform attempts, in which the GOP brass wasn't on board.

Perhaps just as important, though, is that several leading lawmakers with near-pristine conservative credentials are also involved.

Two tea party superstars – Senators Rubio and Lee, both of whom knocked out establishment Republican figures to win their seats – are going to be key players in any reform.

In the House, the involvement of House Judiciary chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia and Representative Labrador of Idaho can provide cover to conservative lawmakers from the party's right flank.

"The fact that you're going to have strong conservative voices helping lead this debate is going to be critical to solving it instead of using it as a political wedge," says Rep. Steve Scalise (R) of Louisiana, incoming chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest and most conservative caucus in the House.

It's notable that both Labrador and Rubio believe in, one way or another, a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, even while they leave open just who can get on that path.

Some conservatives say any form of citizenship given to illegal immigrants – no matter the conditions attached to it – constitutes an "amnesty," which is a guarantee only of more illegal immigration unless the nation's borders are firmly secured and stringent workplace verification systems are put in place.

But a recent poll by George Washington University and Politico found 62 percent of Americans support a proposal that would allow illegal immigrants to earn citizenship over a period of several years, with 40 percent strongly supporting such a measure. Only 35 percent opposed it.

Some Democrats on the Hill are extending a friendly hand to the GOP. When the Congressional Hispanic Caucus – which is entirely Democratic – offered its vision for immigration reform, for example, it served up principles rather than a specific bill, a move received by Republicans as attempting to maximize common ground.

But Democrats also know they are in a position of power.

"You've got a realization on the part of GOP leadership not just in the House but in the Republican Party writ large that if they don't do something about it, they aren't going to win the presidency again," says Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California, a leading immigration reform advocate.

For that reason, she says, Republicans "aren't going to get the credit" for pushing immigration through, but they "can still get the blame if they block" it.

Latino advocacy groups and labor unions, emboldened by the community's growing electoral power, vow to take the fight to those who stand in immigration reform's way in 2013.

"This comprehensive immigration reform for the Latino community is personal. The fact that we've come out in record numbers in 2012 was personal. And that's a calculation that members of Congress don't understand," says Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino. "If they are not with us, 2014 may not look pretty with them."

The president, too, has political pressure to pursue immigration reform. He has already come up short once on immigration-reform promises: In 2009, he said that a comprehensive immigration solution would be a top priority.

Yet his first term also saw record numbers of undocumented immigrants deported. Only this summer, after he directed immigration officials to defer deportation of some young illegal immigrants, was he seen as making good on promises to the Latino community.

"The president says that his biggest failure in the first term was not moving forward with immigration reform," says Hector Sanchez, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. "The Latino community decided to give him a second chance."

Obama has publicly vowed to make immigration reform an immediate priority in his second term, which could begin just on the other side of the "fiscal cliff" negotiations.

"He's the one who has the mandate on this subject; he's the guy who got the voters who care most intensely about this," says Bruce Morrison, a former Democratic congressman from Connecticut who was involved in immigration reform efforts in the 1980s and early '90s.

But even while the parties broadly agree on the need to pursue immigration reform, how to do it remains up in the air.

Both Rubio and Labrador – like many Republicans – favor breaking up the immigration issue into smaller pieces.

Rubio argues that before Congress deals with the millions of undocumented immigrants, it must prove to the American people that it can secure US borders and establish an effective workplace-verification system. Labrador says he prefers a handful of bills moving simultaneously, with different coalitions able to support each measure.

Obama and Democrats in Congress favor a single comprehensive immigration bill, believing that taking one difficult but all-encompassing vote is more secure for lawmakers than having to vote for a half-dozen or more specific proposals.

"It's not a policy decision. It's a strategy decision, but it's an important one," says Representative Lofgren.

While Democrats and Republicans have been negotiating immigration reform for years, lawmakers also say it is vital that small groups of negotiators not hand down a fully formed bill to either chamber with, in effect, a "take it or leave it" sticker on top.

"It's important that we listen to our colleagues; it's important that we listen to the American people," says Representative Diaz-Balart. "I think it would be a grave mistake if we try to ram something down and pretend like we have all the answers."

And while Republicans are on board now, there's a reason they've been hesitant to tackle immigration reform in the past. For one, a vocal part of their base views any form of citizenship for illegal immigrants as a repudiation of the rule of law. Whether these voters – or their representatives – can be persuaded to accept amnesty is an open question.

"We can negotiate about the DREAMers and things like that, but the vast, vast majority of the people who are here illegally – say 12 million people – I think they came here after the age of 18. They knowingly violated the law, and we have to have respect for our law," Labrador says.

Moreover, increasing legal immigration above the current level of 1 million annually could be seen as a blow to those born in America.

Hurting "the American worker with bad immigration policy is not going to get [Republicans] more Hispanic votes," says Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, a group that advocates lower immigration levels. "They've got to do something else."

In that respect, increasing legal immigration might be a difficult sell in 2013.

"I do not see Congress acting in this area in a robust way until the labor market is stronger," says Andrew Schoenholtz, deputy director for the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. "Just how strong is hard to tell."

And then there are the questions that perhaps matter most in the Beltway: Whose plan is on the table first? Which party sets the initial terms for debate?

"The best thing to happen is for some bipartisan thing to get out there first. What's wrong with the debate is winners and losers," Mr. Morrison says. "If you think you're going to beat the other guy into submission with your plan, regardless of what side you're on, the reaction you're going to get is opposition."

A political environment more favorable to immigration reform, however, builds upon longstanding bipartisan relationships. Gutierrez and Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, back from the campaign trail as Mr. Romney's vice presidential running mate, smiled broadly as they walked together into the House chamber for a vote in mid-December.

Gutierrez, a progressive Hispanic Democrat from Chicago, and Representative Ryan, a man Democrats caricatured as pushing Grandma off a cliff with his proposals to change entitlement programs for the elderly, may seem like an odd couple. But back in 2005, Ryan was an original cosponsor of Gutierrez's immigration-reform proposal.

"They've been good friends," says a Ryan spokesman. "They've had a working relationship on this issue and really do see it in the same, pragmatic way."

In Ryan, Gutierrez sees a model for a conservative coming to the issue out of conviction, not political expediency.

"I think he's doing it because it's a reflection of his deep Catholic values, and he wants to get it done," Gutierrez says. "There are a multitude of reasons that people have [come to support immigration reform, and] for the most part what I've seen is they are very sincere and they are genuine."

"All we're doing," Gutierrez says, "is catching up."

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