Immigration reform gets a fighting chance

June 29, 2013

WITH 68 senators voting Thursday for sweeping immigration reform, there is now a fighting chance that Congress will enact a national policy that makes economic, social and moral sense — at long last.

Now it is up to House Republicans, specifically Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, to fix a wrecked immigration system or cater to rejectionist forces in his party who refuse any path to legal status for 11 million undocumented immigrants but propose no workable alternative.

Who are you, Mr. Boehner: a problem-solver or a partisan time-waster?

The Senate vote suggests that despite the sorry history of recent years, there are still enough pragmatists in the upper chamber and enough reserves of political courage to move important and difficult legislation. While the Senate GOP leadership (Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, John Cornyn of Texas and others) sniped from the sidelines, 14 Republican senators, including four from the bipartisan group that drafted the original bill, had the political spine to join every Democrat in the chamber in support of the bill.

Politically, the choice is now clear for Republicans who control the House. They can squash a pathway to legalization and citizenship for the undocumented immigrants in the United States, thereby risking the GOP’s indefinite exile from the White House by infuriating Latinos, the nation’s biggest and fastest-growing minority group. Or they can back something like the Senate bill, thereby giving the party a hope of reconnecting with that group, which the GOP has alienated with hostile rhetoric and policies.

The choice is equally clear on the merits. The 11 million undocumented immigrants, most of whom are employed and have been in America for more than a decade, are here to stay. The Senate bill recognizes that and provides a legal framework to identify, check and incorporate them as full-fledged Americans over 13 years.

At the same time, the bill rationalizes and modernizes a badly outdated and unworkable system for legal immigration, providing mechanisms for more high-tech workers, farm hands and unskilled labor to meet labor market demands and speeding up the reunification of families that have been separated for years or decades.

In the Senate, Republicans won a colossal (and colossally wasteful) infusion of more than $40 billion to beef up security at the border, which is already more secure than it has been in decades. Their GOP colleagues in the House will be hard-pressed to explain why that, along with elaborate new systems to ensure that newly hired employees are authorized to work in this country, is inadequate to cut off the future flow of undocumented immigrants.

Nonetheless, some are sure to try. House hard-liners cling to the illusion that undocumented immigrants can somehow be made disappear. They are sure to propose alternatives that keep these immigrants in the shadows, for example by establishing impossible-to-attain goals for border security as a condition for legalization.

Mr. Boehner has boxed himself in by dismissing the Senate bill — despite the extensive border security provisions, which Republicans have insisted on for years — and declaring that no immigration measure will go forward without backing from a majority of House Republicans — never mind about the Democrats.

Nonetheless, he can still see to it that the House enact similar legislation as a vehicle to open negotiations with the Senate in a conference committee. Short of that, it will be obvious to everyone that what House Republicans really want is to perpetuate a status quo that has led America into a dead end.

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