Hope for immigration reform dashed

February 8, 2014 

It’s disappointing that efforts by U.S. House Republican leaders to at least join the bargaining process for immigration reform appear to have been thwarted.

The leadership emerged from a party caucus retreat in Cambridge, Md., less than two weeks ago with a list of “standards” for a possible immigration reform plan. While the list of principles diverged from the bipartisan bill passed last year in the Senate – which, significantly, included a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million immigrants who are here illegally – it appeared to provide a path to compromise.

The plan would beef up border security and interior enforcement of immigration laws; require employment verification for all employees; update the legal immigration system to encourage more high-skilled immigrants; provide an opportunity for citizenship for young children brought here by their parents; and establish an entry-exit system to track those who enter the U.S. Perhaps most significantly, the plan calls for establishing legal status for immigrants here illegally who are willing to step forward, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, learn English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families with no access to public benefits.

Criminal aliens, gang members and sex offenders would not be eligible. And the program wouldn’t begin until specific “enforcement triggers” have been implemented.

The list of principles specifies that “there will be no special path to citizenship” for those who broke immigration laws to come here. But use of the word “special” suggests that immigrants who attain legal status might one day be able to achieve full citizenship.

Even the Senate bill, which provides a path to citizenship, requires a 13-year wait for citizenship for those living here illegally. And under the House Republican plan, those who gain legal status at least could come out of the shadows and live and work here without fear of being deported.

Democrats, while saying they can’t agree with every facet of the GOP principles, said the plan presented a real possibility that members of both parties in the House and Senate can come together to pass immigration reform that both sides can accept.

“It is a long, hard road but the door is open,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

But House Speaker John Boehner and other House members who signed off on the principles met strong opposition from fellow Republicans. The New York Times reported that Tea Party activists shifted their focus from cutting the federal budget deficit to killing what they saw as amnesty for illegal immigrants. Conservative groups called for a clean sweep of the Republican leadership, according to the Times.

Under that backlash, Boehner said Thursday it’s unlikely he could pass the proposed immigration reform. He blamed widespread distrust of the Obama administration, saying Republicans don’t trust Obama to enforce the immigration laws passed by Congress.

So the flicker of hope for immigration reform apparently was snuffed. That’s alarming because the nation’s immigration laws desperately need reform. The status quo isn’t working.

Deportation of the 11 million immigrants here illegally isn’t practical. Nor is it desirable.

Those immigrants are vital to the U.S. labor force and will help fill the gap as more and more Baby Boomers reach retirement age. It is telling that key industries, such as tourism, agriculture and construction, as well as various business groups are urging Congress to reform national immigration policies.

There’s a risk for Republicans is nothing is done. Hispanics are a fast-rising demographic, and they have voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama and other Democrats in recent elections.

If Republicans who will accept nothing short of deportation prevail in this debate, the party could lose Hispanic voters for generations to come.

House GOP leaders offered a promising opening in the difficult, vital process of reforming immigration laws. Those conservatives who have apparently halted that step need to face reality.

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