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GOP's Rand Paul, Dems' Luis Gutierrez in step on immigration reform

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) and Sen. Rand Paul (R), in separate forums Tuesday, struck common ground on some of the thorniest issues surrounding immigration reform. Is a bipartisan deal close?

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, senior member of the Financial Services Committee speaks at the Monitor Breakfast for reporters in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.

In the immigration reform debate now under way in Washington, Democrats and Republicans are taking a steady march in one direction: toward one another.

On Tuesday morning, a leading Democratic advocate of immigration reform said his party would not require a special path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, in keeping with a key Republican demand.

At nearly the same moment some two blocks away, a 2016 Republican presidential contender and tea party favorite embraced legal status and potential citizenship for the nation’s 12 million undocumented people, which have been Democratic desires for more than a decade.

That's not to say the immigration reform debate is over – far from it.

But when Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, a Chicago progressive who got himself arrested outside the White House protesting Arizona’s tough immigration law, and Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, a heartthrob of the conservative activist set and heir to the Paul family libertarian fame, stake out common ground on immigration reform? That’s saying something.

Senator Paul joined a list of GOP immigration reformers who say they’re willing to provide a pathway to legal status for 12 million illegal immigrants, provided it's paired with enhanced border security and no unique path to American citizenship.

The response from Representative Gutierrez, a key House negotiator on the issue? “I’m willing to take yes for an answer,” he said.

Gutierrez, who crafted ill-fated bipartisan legislation on immigration reform during the tenure of President George W. Bush, tucked into questions from reporters at a Monitor breakfast just down the street from where Senator Paul at the same time launched into the immigration reform debate during a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Their similarities are what spoke loudest.

Paul says his plan brings the undocumented “out of the shadows, lets them normalize their existence, it lets them become [taxpayers]."

"If they want to become citizens," he said on a conference call after his speech, "I’m open to debate as to what we do to move forward. I think the way that moves forward is they get in line like everybody else. Exactly how that works, and the logistics of all this, is still open to how we move it forward.”

What some Republicans fear is that this will be “exactly how that works”: Democrats will lead Republicans to the edge of "amnesty" (as anti-immigration partisans call it) before opting to deep-six a compromise bill, blame the GOP for failure to produce legislation, and rally Hispanic voters, who helped to shellack Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, to their side. 

“Even if you came up with a decent immigration bill,” says former GOP Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio, who retired in 2010, “my fear would be that in that instance somebody over in the Democratic caucus would try to out-Hispanic the Hispanics.”

Gutierrez, who two decades ago became the first Latino elected to Congress from Illinois, could be Suspect A in doing just that. His fiery demeanor and long attention to immigration reform have helped him to build deep ties and respect in the immigration advocacy community.

But Gutierrez said on Tuesday that’s simply not what Democrats want to happen. Democrats and Republicans are almost in synch on the first portion: Both want a pathway to legal status for as long as a decade before anyone in the US illegally would be able to become a citizen. But he also went a step further, saying Democrats won’t insist on a "special pathway to citizenship” for the undocumented, a request that has been a rallying cry of liberal advocates.

“I don’t really think it’s our insistence anymore.... I think if anything, there is greater consensus on the issue of citizenship,” Gutierrez said. “There won’t be a ‘special.’ ”

The road to citizenship, he said, is “perhaps not an easy path or a uniform path for every undocumented immigrant who is legalizing to arrive at a green card at the end of the exact same process, taking the exact same number of years for every person legalizing, but I will not prohibit immigrants who are legalizing from ever being citizens if they choose to apply.”

On perhaps the thorniest policy issue of the immigration debate – the matter of “future flows,” or how many foreign workers and immigrants to allow into the US each year – the two lawmakers also struck common ground.

“The Republican Party must embrace more legal immigration,” Paul said plainly.

Those few words pack a direct rebuff to low-immigration advocacy groups, who hold great sway among Republican lawmakers, and to those GOP members who say more immigration hurts American workers more than it helps the overall economy.

On the flip side, Gutierrez endorsed more foreigners coming to the US for work in the future (a desired prize of corporate America and the agriculture industry) even as he stressed the need for employee protections (a key demand of labor unions).

“You cannot do this without future flows. Democrats have to come to the table and understand that our economy needs workers,” he said. “The problem is, you have to protect workers who are working those fields, too. We’ll get the future flows. We have to make sure that the future flows have a relationship with needs.”

With the Senate’s “gang of eight” lawmakers split between Republicans and Democrats, the addition of Paul – who on Tuesday broadly supported the principles the Senate gang laid out earlier this year – the Senate now appears to have at least the 60 votes needed (all 55 Democrats and five Republicans) to defeat a filibuster.

In the House, Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho said last week that the House working group, which includes Gutierrez, may finish its work before the Senate does. The Senate is expected to introduce immigration legislation in early April.

That doesn’t mean immigration reform is a done deal. The “in principle” agreements still need to become "on paper" legislation, and lawmakers who are skeptical of boosting immigration levels or legalizing the undocumented, such as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, are not going to be pushed aside. On Tuesday, Senator Sessions and several other Republicans sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D) of Vermont asking for lengthy committee consideration of any potential immigration legislation.

“A sound process will take months, not days or weeks,” Sessions said in an e-mailed statement, citing the experience of the much-maligned health-care reform law. “And we’d be better off taking a step-by-step approach than trying to deal with these complex and emotional issues in one massive piece of legislation.... The consequences are simply too profound for American workers and taxpayers to rush through some thousand page amnesty bill to passage only to find out what’s in it later.”

Immigration advocates, however, are not keen on the prospect of months of hearings on proposed reforms. “We are under a time pressure to resolve this issue because the moment is right politically and the further away we get from Election Day 2012,” Gutierrez said, “the less urgency there will be.”

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