Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Brian Bennett reports that the bipartisan “gang of eight” Senators have come close to an agreement on how to offer legal status to the nation’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants. The plan isn’t straightforward, but it seems to satisfy the framework laid out by President Obama and supported by Marco Rubio, one of the leading Republicans (along with John McCain and Lindsey Graham) in the gang of eight.
To earn initial legal status, immigrants will have to register with the Department of Homeland Security, pay a fine, and file federal income taxes for their time in the United States. Once granted legal residency, they will be barred from collecting food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and other federal benefits. It’s not hard to imagine liberal opposition to this additional punishment, which will complicate efforts to bring immigrants into the system and provide assistance. What’s more, the immigration working group is still undecided on how long immigrants would have to wait before they become eligible for permanent legal status and a path to citizenship. The administration has called for an eight-year waiting period, but the Senate will likely extend it in order to maintain Republican support.
It’s still too early to say if something like this will pass. Democrats, who want a comprehensive immigration bill, are likely to support the gang of eight’s proposal. The problem lies with Republicans, who are divided. Republicans with an eye toward the White House are eager to pass something — hence Rubio’s continued support for a bill, and Jeb Bush’s odd flip-flops on the issue of a path to citizenship.
More ideological Republicans, on the other hand, are skeptical that the GOP will gain by switching gears on immigration. Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador, for example, has declared his opposition to a path to citizenship. “The people that came here illegally knowingly — I don’t think they should have a path to citizenship,” he said in an interview with NPR.
There are reasons for conservatives to be skeptical of a comprehensive bill — Latinos are more liberal on a wide range of issues, not just immigration, so even if they do support comprehensive reform, it might not help the GOP repair relations with Latinos. With that said, it’s also true that immigration reform acts as an important litmus test for Latino voters — one that may open the door to Latinos seriously considering support for Republicans. As political scientist Matt Bareto notes for Latino Decisions, “immigration policy stances are closely tied to winning (or losing) the Latino vote” and “a substantial percent of partisans are willing to vote across party lines for an opposing party if that party support comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship.”
It’s no guarantee, but passing a bill, even if it errs on the side of tough, could provide Republicans the foundation they need to build a relationship with Latino voters. So Republicans may end up agreeing to the emerging framework — which would be a real breakthrough for the chances of passing real immigration reform, albeit less ambitious than liberal supporters might like.