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Opinion Immigration solution?

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Immigration reform won’t happen this year, but ironically the border debacle may make immigration reform more likely in the near to mid-future. Even if the House wanted to, there is little time (a couple weeks now and a few in September) to get any major legislation done. Moreover, with the monkey off their back and the Democrats under fire for the border mess, Republicans will see less urgency to move forward. Still, the outlook for 2015 and beyond is not entirely bleak for those who favor immigration reform.

There are the anti-reform advocates who actually oppose all immigration, legal or otherwise, and are fundamentally opposed to compromise on anything. Although that segment of the blogosphere and radio talk show universe is loud, it’s tiny when compared to the combination of the border-security-first and pro-comprehensive reform groups. The key to reform has always been to get the people willing to consider reform if border security is dealt with together with those who want to work on legalization simultaneously with border control (or who aren’t interested in strong border protection mechanisms).

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That’s where President Obama’s miscues may have helped things, although not in the direction of the most emphatic immigration reformers. In essence, Obama’s invitation (or what was interpreted as an invitation) to minors and the ensuing surge of unaccompanied minors have given the border-security-first group a leg up. It’s no longer politically untenable to argue we should first do border security, then evaluate and then address legalization issues. In fact that seems to be the default position. And — here is where it gets interesting — if the House succeeds in turning the president’s request into a measure aimed directly at security then we may take a big step toward improving border security. Rather than arguing about doing border security first, the next Congress can look back on border security measures already enacted, assess their effectiveness and then — perhaps — move forward on other parts of immigration reform.

Three other components in the immigration equation have also changed in ways that may promote comprehensive reform. First, legalization and not citizenship is being widely accepted on the Democratic side — at least for now. (Watch Dems move the goalposts if legalization ever gets through the House.) That takes care of some (not all) conservatives who are convinced this is all a plot to build the Democrats’ voter rolls. (Maybe they could try competing for those votes instead of hoping against hope that demographic trends will reverse.) Second, the president is more inclined (more, not guaranteed) to stop unilaterally changing the immigration laws. That has only given the GOP an excuse to do nothing but, if repeated, will put any illegal immigration surge squarely on his and fellow Democrats’ shoulders. And third, midterms and pesky right-wing primary challenges will be in the rear view mirror. Certainly, the presidential primary election may give some reason to grandstand against reform, but in fact virtually all candidates are on record favoring some form of immigration reform.

What then could emerge out of all this? A border security measure gets passed this year. Next year that’s evaluated and perhaps improved to enhance effectiveness or address logistical issues that have come up. In separate legislation the House puts together a measure to work on agricultural guest workers, high-skilled H1-B visas, eVerify, immigration overstays and then (conditioned on learning English, paying a fine and back taxes) legalization for those who’ve been here for a long time (e.g. 15 years). It’s not ideal, but it’s conceivable from a political standpoint.

In short, both sides can come together in an effort to fix the mess the president helped create. And that in turn may lay the groundwork for more progress on immigration reform. That’s the theory, at any rate. We’ll see whether a border security bill can get done this year. If so, there’s a sliver of hope more can be accomplished.