Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) conceded last week that it is “time to deal” with immigration, and that there’s reason for optimism. The GOP leader added there’s a “bipartisan group” that’s been working on this, and “they basically have an agreement.”
As it turns out, Boehner was right.
A bipartisan group of senators has agreed on a set of principles for a sweeping overhaul of the immigration system, including a pathway to American citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants that would hinge on progress in securing the borders and ensuring that foreigners leave the country when their visas expire.
The senators were able to reach a deal by incorporating the Democrats’ insistence on a single comprehensive bill that would not deny eventual citizenship to illegal immigrants, with Republican demands that strong border and interior enforcement had to be clearly in place before Congress could consider legal status for illegal immigrants.
The group was made up of eight senators, four from each party: Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Rubio, of course, was reportedly working on his own plan, which mirrored President Obama’s 2011 proposal.
McCain’s inclusion is also of interest, largely because it reflects a hard-to-execute flip-flop-flip – McCain championed a comprehensive reform package in 2007, then announced his opposition to his own plan in 2008, and has now re-embraced the policies he rejected.
Looking ahead, there are two broad ways to look at the news: evaluating the policy and the politics. On both fronts, Democrats have an important advantage that’s likely to help dictate the outcome.
For Democrats, making immigration reform comprehensive is critical – if reform were broken up into parts, it’d be too easy for far-right Republicans to balk at important provisions that they may find ideologically distasteful. By committing to an all-encompassing approach, members strived to reach a deal that could satisfy a wide variety of constituencies.
With that in mind, the agreement these eight senators reached checks a lot of boxes. [Update: here’s the five-page blueprint the senators’ offices are distributing today.]
Under the senators’ plan, most illegal immigrants would be able to apply to become permanent residents – a crucial first step toward citizenship – but only after certain border enforcement measures had been accomplished.
Among the plan’s new proposals is the creation of a commission of governors, law enforcement officials and community leaders from border states that would assess when border security measures had been completed. A proposal would also require that an exit system be in place for tracking departures of foreigners who entered the country through airports or seaports, before any illegal immigrants could start on a path to citizenship.
The Times report added that Rubio insisted on a provision that requires immigrants who gained legal status under the bill would “be required to go to the back of the line” behind other immigrants who applied to come through legal channels.
The legislative package will also, not surprisingly, impose new requirements on “employers to check the immigration status of new workers; increase the number of visas for high-skilled jobs; provide green cards automatically to people who earn master’s degrees or PhDs in science, technology or math at U.S. universities; and create an agricultural guest-worker program.”
So, will the senators’ plan serve as the basis for the larger debate in the coming months? In part, yes, but it won’t be that simple. President Obama is set to unveil his latest immigration plan in a speech tomorrow in Las Vegas, and while it’s likely to be similar, the White House’s approach will probably go a little further than the bipartisan Senate plan, since Obama has not yet begun negotiating with GOP lawmakers.
But it’s the question mark hanging over the House that arguably matters most. The lower chamber’s Republican majority is smaller than it was last year, but it’s still dominated by a far-right caucus, deeply skeptical of reform, and wary of anything right-wing activists may choose to characterize as “amnesty.”
The fact that there’s a Senate proposal that can probably clear a GOP filibuster is an important step, but that has long been considered the easiest hurdle to clear. Whether the House can pass this or anything else is a tougher question.
Also keep an eye on how Democrats approach negotiations as they unfold in earnest. More so than any other issue on the policy landscape, congressional Republicans are genuinely afraid of immigration – or more to the point, they’re afraid of the electoral consequences of killing it. For many GOP leaders, there’s a realization that the party’s demographic challenges pose a serious threat to the party’s ability to compete on a national level, and if the pieces are in place for a comprehensive reform breakthrough, and House Republicans defeat it because the right wing of the party deems it too liberal, the blowback would be severe.
This dynamic is important because it gives Democrats meaningful leverage over the eventual scope of the plan. The GOP isn’t afraid to ignore popular opinion on gun violence, taxes, education, or energy, but they want to take immigration policy off the table. If Dems don’t leverage that advantage, they’re missing a rare opportunity.