After years of debate and deadlock, Congress seems to have all the elements this year to revamp a broken immigration system and devise a way to handle up to 12 million undocumented immigrants while tightening border security.
Advocates of reform can point to new Democratic leaders who have promised action, the support of President Bush, the failure of hard-line anti-immigration appeals in the past election, and a large coalition of business, labor, church and rights groups ready to turn up the pressure again.
“This is a rare time when the politics are right for both parties to act,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat who chairs the House immigration subcommittee. “The expectation is that Democrats, in power, will get something done, and we have to do that. And if most Republicans block this again, they will put themselves in political peril.”
But don’t expect a comprehensive immigration bill to be on Bush’s desk soon. Formidable obstacles remain, including the emotional, unpredictable nature of immigration politics and the pressure of an early presidential campaign.
“It may be approved in some form by the Senate, but it will stumble again in the House, just as last year,” predicted Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, in a recent online debate. “The public overwhelmingly supports consistent enforcement to reduce the illegal population.”
This week, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., plans to introduce a bill similar to the one that attracted the support of almost two-thirds of the Senate last year, including 23 Republicans. His co-sponsor, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is expected to lend his support again.
The bill will set conditions for undocumented residents to gain legal status. Last year’s bill included a three-tier system that made it easier or harder for residents, depending on how many years they have lived in the United States. That system was included to lure more votes, but its supporters now see it as cumbersome and flawed.
While backers of reform talk about “earned legalization,” critics cry “amnesty” and remind voters of the failed 1986 amnesty, which was accompanied by promises of better border security that weren’t kept.
Some GOP presidential candidates are sounding that theme, or largely avoiding the issue. But Republicans face another problem if they are seen as blocking immigration reform—a backlash from Latino voters, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.
Democrats face their own internal discord on immigration. Some of their union backers don’t want more undocumented workers in the country, and a few new Democrats won House seats from the GOP by stressing the need for border security over a comprehensive plan.