Sane Immigration Reform on Tap?

By Lee Hockstader
Sunday, September 13, 2009

The chances of building a sane immigration system seemed unlikely enough in 2007 before it was squashed by divisions among Democrats and a talk radio-fueled revolt on the right. If anything, they look even worse now, given the competing debates over health care and energy, a jobless rate edging toward 10 percent, and a plateau or decline in the number of illegal immigrants in the country.

All that seems to have sapped the immigration debate of its urgency, while leaving intact its potential to enrage conservatives -- as we were reminded by Rep. Joe Wilson's dyspeptic outburst and the subsequent chorus of "You go, Joe" from his constituents in South Carolina.

But Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is drafting legislation to overhaul immigration, and President Obama says he intends to make a fresh push on the issue next year. That may not be as crazy as it sounds.

It's not that the anemic U.S. economy is going to take the problem off the politicians' hands. Despite high unemployment and sluggish growth here, the Mexican economy is in far worse straits: It is expected to shrink by 7 percent this year, much more dire than the U.S. economy, and both the tourism and oil industries -- mainstays of Mexico's economy -- are in bad shape. The main factors that have prompted millions of Mexicans to leave home for decades are going strong.

But the recession, coupled with tougher enforcement, has slowed the flow of Mexicans, by far the largest chunk of undocumented immigrants, who cross into this country. And -- depending on which numbers you believe -- it may also have prompted those already here to go home in greater numbers. The total number of illegal immigrants in the country has either leveled off at around 11 or 12 million or declined somewhat.

That's one reason the politics may have shifted. Another is that the immigration issue, despite being red meat for some conservatives, has mostly been an electoral bust for the right. In 20 of 22 competitive House and Senate races last November, the candidates favoring greater immigration reform -- generally Democrats -- defeated their harder-line opponents, according to an analysis by America's Voice, a pro-reform group.

Those results, which followed similar outcomes in the 2006 congressional elections, should give centrist and swing-state Democrats some assurance that a vote for a sensible immigration policy is not a career-ender.

The Obama administration has also been smart to expand the E-Verify system, which forces employers to confirm that new hires are authorized to work here, and to press ahead with the federal program to deputize local police to help deport unauthorized immigrants. Those steps provide a basis for the president and fence-sitters in his own party to argue that the administration has been serious about enforcing existing law.

Some moderate Republicans will also have noticed the mounting long-term folly of continuing to oppose issues that matter to Hispanic voters, the single fastest-growing segment of the electorate. That constituency, which was critical in helping Democrats win four swing states in 2008 -- Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado -- has grim memories of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of state and local Republicans. And it has been badly hurt by a recession that took hold during the Bush administration: Income for Hispanic households fell by 5.6 percent in 2008 compared with the previous year, a rate of decline twice that of African Americans.

If Republicans hope to reverse what could be a generational shift of Hispanic voters to the Democrats, they won't get there by bashing whatever immigration reform legislation emerges in the Senate. Moderates, at least, will have to rebrand themselves, and immigration reform is a perfect opportunity.

There is room for reframing and repackaging the immigration debate so that it does not become a replay of the Bush administration's failed attempts of 2006 and 2007. But to be successful in reshaping the country's dysfunctional system, any legislation needs to recognize economic realities: that millions of immigrant workers are here to stay; that many or most do jobs that native-born Americans don't want; and that Mexico's comparative poverty will continue to drive immigrants north to a better life.

Recession or no recession, a comprehensive reform bill must provide a way out of this mess born of neglect by offering a path to legality for undocumented immigrants already here and a mechanism for future workers, skilled and unskilled, to enter the country in adequate numbers to meet the job market's demands.

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