Immigration reform: 3 reasons it's got its best chance yet

Immigration reform has been snarled in partisan gridlock for years. But after losing 7 in 10 Hispanic votes in 2012, not all Republicans – in Congress and on talk radio – are mounting an all-out war on reform legislation.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Immigration advocates gather outside the Senate Judiciary Committee room on Capitol Hill in Washington as they wait to attend a hearing on comprehensive immigration reform legislation on April 22. The Judiciary Committee will take its first votes on the reform bill on May 9.

The GOP's Sen. John McCain couldn’t do it in 2005. Spanish-speaking Texan President George W. Bush couldn’t do it in 2007. Spooked, President Obama didn’t even try it in his first term, although he had promised to.

Indeed, Republican opposition has doomed immigration reform nearly every time it has been proposed – 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2010, according to the National Journal.

By all accounts, however, this time will be different. Even the typically restrained Associated Press calls it, “the kind of breathtaking turnaround you rarely see in politics.”

Senate hearings begin this week on the 844-page immigration reform proposal written by a bipartisan group of eight senators, including co-author Florida senator and conservative idol Marco Rubio. Though opposition still looms, for the first time in years partisan outrage appears to be absent – and this latest immigration reform proposal may have the best chance of passing in a very long while.

Here are three reasons why:

The 2012 election

You haven’t already forgotten, have you? If the 2012 election taught us anything, it is that Hispanic voters matter. Like the youth vote in 2008, Hispanics were the star bloc of the last election, arguably the reason Mr. Obama won and GOP contender Mitt Romney lost.

It’s not just the GOP that recognizes that. Obama won 71 percent of Hispanic voters in 2012, and frankly, he may feel he owes them – especially since he’s been promising immigration reform since he ran for office in 2008.

And the GOP, well, its “pathetic job of reaching out to people of color” (as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) told Fox News after his party’s thrashing) cost it the White House last year. And the party knows it’s more or less doomed without Hispanic support in coming years.

“If we don’t do better with Hispanics, we’ll be out of the White House forever,” Republican strategist Ana Navarro said post-election.

Potential political irrelevance? Nothing like it to fuel legislative action.

Marco Rubio

Come on, who’s got more conservative cred’ than bill co-author Sen. “I bleed Republican red” Rubio?

He’s been called the “crown prince of the Tea Party movement,” a “conservative hero," a Latino “rising star,” and the GOP’s natural leader on immigration reform.

And that’s why he’s the immigration reform bill’s best bet for success. Rubio, along with Gang-of-Eight GOP heavyweights Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain, and Jeff Flake of Arizona, are targeting Republican lawmakers to support the bill.

Sure, he’s getting plenty of flak, but that hasn’t stopped the Cuban-American from Florida from making his case.

As he recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Conservatism has always been about reforming government and solving problems, and that's why the conservative movement should lead on immigration reform … defeating it without offering an alternative cannot be the conservative position on immigration reform. That would leave the issue entirely in the hands of President Obama and leave in place the disastrous status quo.”

Growing support

Unlike in 2007, when Republican outrage mounted into an all-out war against immigration reform, 2013 sees increasing support for – and recognition of the need for – comprehensive immigration reform from a bevy of conservative groups.

Top among them: evangelical Christians. In 2007, they were among immigration reform’s staunchest opponents; today, they are some of its biggest supporters, calling on their ranks to obey biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger.

Last month, some 300 evangelical leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., to support immigration reform – virtually unheard of six years ago.

No surprise, business leaders are also coming out more publicly in favor of immigration reform, recognizing that they need immigrants – skilled and unskilled – to advance their own interests. As it stands, the Gang of Eight’s proposal would establish an agricultural worker visa system as well as create more visa programs for high- and low-skill workers.

That’s why Silicon Valley and the tech industry, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, are “feverishly working" to support the immigration bill – and shape it to their interests.

When it comes to change of heart, however, the biggest surprise has been conservative talk radio.

Six years ago, irate talk radio hosts, such as Fox News personality and syndicated talk radio host Sean Hannity, whipped up Republican outrage over immigration reform, which ultimately doomed the bill.

Not this time. Mr. Hannity "says that he 'has evolved' and that it is time for Republicans to support some kind of major change in the nation’s immigration system,” according to The New York Times.

Apparently he’s not alone.

Conservative talk radio host Michael Medved told the paper he sensed a shift. “What you are not hearing as much, except from a handful of people, is ‘over my dead body,’ ” Mr. Medved told the Times. “The level of apocalyptic hysteria is much less.”

Hey, if conservative talk radio – and Hannity – can pull an about-face on immigration reform, this bill’s got its best chance yet.

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