For the first time in a decade Congress is poised to take a high dive into the politics of immigration this week. Usually Washington waits until a problem becomes a crisis before taking the plunge. Not this time.
The situation with illegal immigration has actually gotten better. Border security has been beefed up dramatically in recent years. With the United States economy weak and the one in Mexico growing stronger, the pace of illegal border crossings has slowed. And the Obama administration has been deporting people at a record rate. So, why is Congress taking on immigration now?
Because Republicans are dealing with a political crisis.
Hispanics are a large, growing and increasingly savvy group of voters, many of whom see improving the system for legal immigration, as well as the lot of people here illegally, as a priority. They’re not voting for Republicans, in part due to their intransigence on the issue, and that’s made it awfully hard for Republicans to win national elections.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate last year, adopted "voluntary deportation" as his approach to illegal immigration, and he got only 27 percent of Hispanic votes. That’s a steep drop from the 43 percent who voted for George W. Bush in 2004, and even the 31 percent who supported Sen. John McCain in 2008.
It’s amazing how Republicans gave up the high ground they used to enjoy on the issue.
Republican Ronald Reagan was the president who signed the most recent immigration reform into law in 1986. It gave three million people here illegally at the time an opportunity to become citizens, but was vilified for failing to secure the borders.
Republican George W. Bush championed reform after he was elected president in 2004. His push for a guest worker program died a quick death, but he tried again in 2007, calling for comprehensive reform, including a path to legalization. And the Republican sponsor of that legislation was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who became the party’s presidential candidate in 2008. That initiative was stymied largely by Republican opposition, and by the time McCain ran for president he was on the enforcement first bandwagon.
Democrats have had their own internal fights over immigration reform, often driven by labor unions who don’t much like the idea of immigrants competing with American workers. But President Barack Obama and most congressional Democrats are on board for reform.
As Congress takes up the controversial issue again beginning this week, the storyline to watch is whether Republican leaders — responding to the political imperative with the party’s rising Hispanic star Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida running point guard— can bring their conservative base and tea party colleagues along for the ride.