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Immigration reform by 2017? Top Democrats seem slightly optimistic

“I think that in 2017, Democrats and Republicans will come together and pass immigration reform,” Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer said.
About fifty pro-immigration reform demonstrators gathered for a rally outside the United States Supreme Court Jan. 15, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
About fifty pro-immigration reform demonstrators gathered for a rally outside the United States Supreme Court Jan. 15, 2016 in Washington, DC.

Top Democratic leaders are slowly ginning up hope that, contrary to the prevailing narrative that Republicans want to banish all immigrants, hope is not entirely lost that Congress could reconcile differences and pass comprehensive reform.

The latest hint comes from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is suggesting that Congress may take on immigration reform as early as the beginning of the next administration.

He made the case while on a podcast with the Center for Migration Studies last week, which fell under the radar before being picked up by Politico on Wednesday. In the interview, Schumer sounded optimistic that newly-minted House Speaker Paul Ryan would be willing to hash out an immigration deal.

“I think that in 2017, Democrats and Republicans will come together and pass immigration reform,” Schumer said. “Paul Ryan has made no secret about the fact that he has been open to immigration reform.”

RELATED: What a divided Supreme Court would mean for the future of immigration

Schumer’s comments mark the first concrete sign that congressional leaders are willing to bring immigration reform back on the table once President Obama leaves office. The last major attempt ended in failure nearly three years ago, at a time when the political climate around the issue was, comparatively, far less hostile. 

But the urgent need for some type of legislative fix for the United States' mangled immigration system has festered in the time since then. In fact, the stakes appear even higher this week with a blockbuster case before the Supreme Court challenging Obama’s executive actions on immigration. The programs were designed to defer the deportations of nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants. But with those actions possibly imperiled by the high court, the onus now falls on the next president and Congress to take on the problem.

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton this week doubled down on her pledge that if elected, she would have an immigration reform bill introduced into Congress within her first 100 days in office.

Her platform to grant a pathway to citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants stands in direct contrast to the proposals of the Republican presidential candidates, who have taken an aggressive hard-line stance against the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.

Advocates of pro-immigrant reform have long predicted and hoped that Republican opponents would either have a change of heart on deportation policies, or be voted out of office.

But the fervent, anti-immigrant vitriol stoke by GOP front-runner Donald Trump is bound to adversely impact any legislative effort to take a more welcoming tack on immigration. The likelihood is that any comprehensive bill will have to reconcile deeply entrenched partisan values.

“As president I would expend enormous energy, literally call every member of Congress that I thought I could persuade,” Clinton said during a presidential debate earlier this year. “Hopefully after the 2016 election, some of the Republicans will come to their senses and realize we are not going to deport 11 or 12 million people in this country. And they will work with me to get comprehensive immigration reform.”

RELATED: An anti-immigrant experiment failed long before Donald Trump’s ascent

There are signs that even the most conservative members of Congress are anxious to roll out a solution to the U.S.’s festering immigration problems. Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona just on Wednesday introduced a bill establishing a flexible guest worker program for seasonal workers and high-skilled immigrants.

Both Flake and Schumer were part of the bipartisan coalition in the Senate known as the “Gang of Eight” behind the last major reform bill. And according to Schumer, any new legislation would likely look a lot like what they were able to pass the Senate in 2013. But he also made clear that if a Democrat won the White House in November, and carried the party to a majority in the upper chamber, his job would be a lot easier.

“If the election results show that this anti-immigrant hostility won’t work politically, people will say, 'Let’s get it done.' I’m optimistic,” Schumer said on the Center for Migration Studies podcast. “And if I become the Democratic leader — knock on wood, praise God — I’m going to make it a priority.”