Dithering on Immigration Reform

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Sunday, July 5, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- President Obama recently reignited the immigration debate when he told reporters that congressional leaders of both parties were ready to "actively get something done and not put it off until a year, two years, three years, five years from now, but to start working on this thing right now."

In the months ahead, keep an eye on two things: the calendar and the issue of guest workers.

The calendar: "Right now" might not be soon enough. The conventional wisdom is that the longer Obama waits, the harder it will be to pass any immigration reform legislation. One immigration activist I spoke with even had a deadline in mind: March 2010. Congress has to discuss the bill this fall, he said, and pass it no later than next spring. His thinking -- and that of many others -- is that the 2010 midterm elections might cut into the Democratic majority in Congress, and then the chance for immigration reform could slip away.

The flaw with such reasoning is that it assumes Republicans are the main obstacle to reform, and that, conversely, Democrats must be the main facilitators. Yet Republicans are under a lot of pressure from business groups to fix the immigration system so companies can more easily hire workers. As for Democrats, they were the ones carrying the ball in 2007, the last time Congress fumbled the chance at reform.

In fact, in this go-round, it is the Democrats -- specifically, Blue Dog Democrats -- whom Obama has to worry about most. An estimated 40 House Democrats are thought to be either too conservative to support a pathway for illegal immigrants to become legal, or at risk of losing their seats if they vote for such a measure.

This makes it all the more important that Obama win over at least some Republican votes to offset the Democratic ones he can't count on. But the problem stretches back to why Democrats had trouble passing reform two years ago. You see, the Democratic Party is beholden to organized labor, which supports immigration reform but with an important caveat. While it has no problem with legalizing workers it hopes will become card-carrying, dues-paying union members, it continues to resist the idea of allowing businesses -- as part of the bargain -- to bring into the United States hundreds of thousands of temporary foreign workers.

Guest workers: In 2007, Democrats were caught in a tough spot between trying to please Hispanic voters who wanted immigration reform and unions willing to kill the deal if they couldn't manage to remove the language on guest workers. This time, Democrats have figured a way out. They're prepared to simply steer clear of the whole issue of guest workers and propose legislation that focuses only on enhanced border enforcement and a pathway to legalization.

This was the take from a speech that Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York -- the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration -- gave last month at an event sponsored by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. Schumer is going to write the immigration bill. And in laying out what he considered to be key elements, he omitted any reference to guest workers.

Yet if guest workers are off the menu, don't expect Republicans to sit down at the table. Even immigration moderates such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have drawn a line in the sand and assured the White House that if guest workers aren't part of the final bill, they won't support it.

But wait. Didn't I say earlier that Obama needs Republican votes because he can expect to lose a big chunk of Democratic support? So Schumer would be foolish not to throw the GOP a bone on this one, and perhaps -- as a state legislator in Texas recently suggested to me -- create a guest worker plan that is tied to market forces. When unemployment goes up, the number of guest worker visas goes down, and vice versa.

Should that language get in, you can expect organized labor to panic and put the screws to Democrats again to oppose the bill. Then, before you know it, we're back where we started: with a broken immigration system and a Congress that doesn't have the skills or the guts to fix it.

And they call this reform?

Ruben Navarrette is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com.

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