A high-profile new bipartisan group is forming to pressure Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, including former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center announced Monday.
The group will also be led by former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, as well as former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. The new immigration task force will add members in coming days and will meet in coming months to establish a series of recommendations for policy leaders to revamp immigration laws, including improving border security and enforcement, expanding routes for legal immigration and dealing with the estimated 11 million people now living in the country illegally.
The goal is to help guide Congress, which has just embarked on the most ambitious push to reexamine immigration laws in years. A bipartisan group of eight senators has announced a series of principles to guide the effort and is now working feverishly to translate their ideas into legislation for Senate consideration. President Obama has named immigration as one of his top legislative priorities for the year and will likely highlight the issue in Tuesday's State of the Union address.
The four co-chairs told reporters Monday that they are entering the process convinced changes are needed in immigration laws but without prejudging recommendations their group might advance in coming months. Rice said the failure to adopt comprehensive immigration reform "tops the list" of work she wishes could have been accomplished during her time in the administration of former president George W. Bush.
"People of good faith and intentions disagree about the specifics of immigration," she said. "I hope that as a country, we can come to a place where we really acknowledge how important immigration and immigrants have been to who we are as Americans and why we've led in economic revolution after economic revolution," she said.
Bush was strongly supportive of an immigration reform bill that failed on the floor of the Senate in 2007, despite backing from a broad spectrum of key players on both sides of the aisle, including Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "I think it just shows the difficulty of this issue," she said.
But she said a "new energy" has infused the effort since the election. Barbour added that he believed the GOP is ready to embrace immigration changes, provided Republicans are convinced the effort will do more than pay lip service to improving enforcement of immigration laws and hardening the border.
"I believe that with a real effort that is bipartisan and bicameral that you'll see more openness," he said.
On perhaps the key emerging flash point in the debate -- whether illegal immigrants should be afforded some kind of path to American citizenship -- Cisneros, Rendell and Barbour all said they believe citizenship should eventually be available for the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. Calling the issue perhaps the "hardest and vexing" piece of the debate, Rice said she approached the question with an open mind.
Key to this effort, however, has been a shift on the issue among Republicans, many of whom have been rethinking the party's longstanding opposition to legalization as a way to lure the nation's growing numbers of Hispanic voters. Rice and Barbour, in particularly, have been at the forefront of urging their party to rethink its hardline stance on the issue. Their roles with the new Washington policy group is a sign they plan to step up their involvement in help fellow Republicans evolve on the issue.
The group will be directed by Rebecca Tallent, former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who helped draft previous immigration proposals on McCain's behalf, a sign that the group intends to come forward with serious legislative proposals that could guide Congress's work.
“Securing our nation’s borders is not only a national security priority, it is important economically,” Rice said in a statement. “I am eager to develop a set of recommendations for immigration reform that both Republicans and Democrats can support.”
The new task force's leaders will hold a conference call for reporters to provide more details on their effort Monday afternoon.