Five reasons why immigration reform is moving forward

March 19, 2013

If you want to feel even modestly hopeful about Washington, don't look at the prospects for a deal on the budget, infrastructure, or climate. Instead, look at the state of immigration reform, where real, honest-to-goodness, bipartisan talks have been humming along for months now.

Erik S. Lesser/AP
Erik S. Lesser/AP

When the Senate's "Gang of Eight" came out with a bipartisan framework for an immigration overhaul, there was no shortage of eye-rolling in Washington. Another bipartisan gang? Good luck with that! But then a strange thing happened: The Senate gang started to make progress and hammer out concrete details for a plan—a plan that was mostly in line with the White House's own ideas for reform. Meanwhile, both the standard-bearers and the upstarts of the Republican Party have begun to echo the call for action.

Sure, things could still fall apart when the talks shift to the House. But here's why things are looking up:

1) We've been through this before. The 2006-07 immigration reform talks fell apart, but the passage of time seems to have allowed various stakeholders to cool off and come back to the table to work out a deal. Democrats are more united and relatively less suspicious of the temporary worker programs that raised their hackles the last time around (then-Sen. Obama was among those who voted for an amendment phasing out a guest-worker program), and more prominent Republicans have come around to a path to citizenship.

"The immigration issue in a lot of ways I think is maturing in a way that simply takes time," says Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, who was a staffer for Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) during the 2006-07 debate. "There seems to be a much greater level of trust and cordiality. [The last time] the two sides were dragged kicking and screaming together." A similar dynamic was at play with health-care reform—another major effort that had suffered from a spectacular defeat in Congress before finally passing. "Any major, major piece of social change is a long process," Giovagnoli concludes.

2) Republicans have a political imperative to keep things moving: Top strategists from both parties agree that the tide really began to turn after Election Day, when it became clear that Republicans lost the vast majority of Hispanic and Asian voters. While there's certainty a desire to pass immigration reform because on its policy merits, "it's also driven by survival," says Kevin Madden, a former Romney adviser. "If we don't change on this issue the party is going to lose its ability to grow."

3) Immigration reform largely stands apart from the fiscal fight that's driven apart both parties. Republicans have made it clear that their top priority is holding firm on taxes and spending, but they haven't retained such a hard line on other issues. The Republican National Committee's autopsy stressed the party's need to reach out to minorities and support comprehensive immigration reform, but it remained firmly committed to preserving the party's core economic agenda. "If your top priority is low taxes, everything is possible," says Jeff Hauser, lead for political media outreach at the AFL-CIO. "The fact that everything else is failing may make people more eager to provide an accomplishment."

4) Powerful interest groups are trying to help the process along. The labor vs. business fight over temporary guest-workers was one of the biggest impasses of the Bush-era immigration fight. Now the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce are sitting down to iron out their own differences, at the behest of the Senate. They are still struggling to come to a final agreement, but it's a good faith effort that could help such contentious issues from tearing apart the negotiations on Capitol Hill.

5) There's a big grassroots movement in support of the issue. Congress's last attempt at immigration reform died in 2007, but activists and advocates haven't just been sitting in the wings over the last six years. Immigrant activists, together with their allies in evangelical churches, Latino groups, universities, and others, have mobilized around the record number of deportations by the Obama administration and the dramatic anti-immigration laws passed by Arizona and other GOP-governed states. Undocumented students from the DREAM movement have come forward into the spotlight.

All this has helped keep the momentum for immigration reform going on the ground even as Congress and the White House dallied on the issue. And that's helped drive public support for a comprehensive overhaul.  "A movement doesn't really become a vital political entity that can drive legislation until you move from people who are most passionate and directly concerned to the average American says, 'Oh this affects me,' or 'I don't like what this says about the country,'" says Giovagnoli.

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Dylan Matthews | March 19, 2013