Immigration reform to be a critical issue in the U.S. capital in 2013

WASHINGTON – U.S. President Barack Obama’s decisive re-election victory in November has highlighted the rapidly changing face of America, with liberals hopeful that minorities, in particular, are leading the country along a multicultural path into the 21st century.

The Republican party, meantime, is in the midst of profound soul-searching, trying to determine how best to reinvent itself and broaden its appeal given the dwindling demographic that remains its only reliable constituency — aging white men.

For all the blistering partisan brawling that has paralyzed the U.S. capital over the past four years, there’s one issue that has serious potential to unite Republicans and Democrats alike in 2013 — immigration reform.

Obama is intent on forging ahead with a sweeping overhaul of the country’s immigration system as early as next month, once the ongoing fiscal cliff negotiations are behind him.

Even John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, acknowledged the need for reform despite voting against the so-called Dream Act in 2007. That bill, ultimately defeated, would have provided a path to citizenship for the country’s millions of illegal immigrants.

“A comprehensive approach is long overdue,” Boehner said recently. “And I’m confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.”

Obama won re-election with the overwhelming support of Hispanics, the fastest growing demographic in the country.

The president even won a record 47 per cent of votes from conservative Cuban-Americans, who have historically cast their ballots for the Republican party.

His triumph on Nov. 6 came amid a period of sweeping transformation in the United States. In 2011, minority births surpassed white births for the first time. By 2042, the majority of Americans will no longer be white.

The writing is most certainly on the wall for Republicans in the aftermath of the bitter electoral karma-gram delivered to them after Mitt Romney urged immigrants to “self-deport” and backed a controversial proposal to build a high-tech fence along the Texas-Mexico border.

Even George W. Bush recently broke his usual policy against publicly commenting on politics to go to bat for immigration reform.

“Immigrants come with new skills and new ideas. They fill a critical part in our labour market. They work hard for a better life,” Obama’s Republican predecessor said in Dallas at a Dec. 4 conference on immigration reform and economic growth.

“Not only do immigrants help build our economy, they help invigorate our soul.”

Bush’s own experience serves to remind Republicans that appealing to Hispanics can play a critical role in winning elections, even for conservatives. He won record support from Latinos during his presidential campaigns, pulling in about 35 per cent of the Hispanic vote in 2000 and about 40 per cent in 2004.

One immigration expert, however, is unconvinced that Bush’s fellow Republicans are truly seeing the light.

“The Republican leadership has definitely identified that immigration reform is needed to build bridges to minorities, especially Latinos and Asian-Americans,” said Louis Desipio, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine.

“But I’m not sure that urgency is shared by the rank and file.”

Instead, Desipio suggests, most congressional Republicans are failing to see the big picture.

Many Republican senators, he points out, are mindful of how a respected moderate among them, Indiana’s Dick Lugar, lost his job in 2012 after a successful primary challenge by Tea Party darling Richard Mourdock. Mourdock ultimately went down to defeat on Nov. 6 thanks to anti-abortion remarks.

On Capitol Hill, nonetheless, Latino Republicans — elected in immigrant-rich districts — have already begun to quietly reach across the aisle to initiate discussion with their pro-immigration Democratic colleagues.

Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida congressman, said recently that he wants to see a comprehensive immigration reform bill “as soon as possible.”

“There are a number of very well-intentioned Democrats very passionate about this issue who are working to solve it; there are Republicans who are doing the same thing,” he said.

“I’m as optimistic as I have been in many years.”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, meantime, arguably the party’s most high-profile Latino, is said to be sitting down with his Arizona counterpart John McCain, one of the architects of the Dream Act, to come up with a Republican immigration reform proposal.

A recent gathering in the U.S. capital was aimed at pushing Congress into action. Its array of speakers, from church leaders to business owners and even a dairy farmer from rural New York, were cautiously optimistic that immigration reform was just on the horizon.

“I believe we have the will on both sides of the aisle to hammer out a solution to the immigration dilemma that has confounded our nation for over a decade,” Rev. Luis Cortes, who does outreach to the Hispanic community, told a news conference to kick off the National Immigration Forum.

Behind the scenes, the Latino mega-donors who helped put the boots to Romney’s presidential aspirations are mobilizing thousands of Hispanics to create a formidable online and social media presence aimed at pressuring Congress. The Futuro Fund, a big Obama donor, is behind the initiative.

And yet even though Hispanics unceremoniously rejected the Republican party in November, relations have been far from rosy between the Obama administration and the Latino community.

There have been a record number of deported immigrants under Obama, and the president failed to make immigration reform a top priority during his first term. That spurred harsh criticism from pro-immigration organizations.

But since his re-election, Obama has displayed a renewed vigour for immigration reform both publicly and in private meetings with special interest groups.

The president is aiming for a sweeping package of reforms that will include a path to citizenship for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants, tougher security measures at the U.S.-Mexican border and more serious penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

Nonetheless, there’s no guarantee it’s smooth sailing ahead for immigration reform. Partisan sniping has already greeted efforts to get the ball rolling.

In late November, Republican senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Jon Kyl introduced their watered-down version of the Dream Act.

The new bill, dubbed the Achieve Act, would give illegal immigrants — many of them brought unwittingly into the country as children — a chance to gain permanent citizenship through either post-secondary education or military service.

But they wouldn’t be eligible for federal benefits or assistance, including student loans.

“The problem with the Achieve Act is it does not achieve the dream,” New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez told reporters after the bill was introduced. His colleague in the House of Representatives, Luis Gutierrez, dismissed the initiative as “too little, too late.”

Two days later, the House of Representatives voted on the Science, Technology, Engineering of Mathematics (STEM) Jobs Act. That bill amends the existing Immigration and Nationality Act to make available more than 50,000 visas to qualified immigrants who have advanced STEM degrees from an American university.

The bill would have also allowed the reunification of families of foreign workers who are in the U.S. legally.

Gutierrez was equally dismissive, saying the bill “is more about politics and optics for the Republicans than about anything substantive.”

The White House, meantime, said that while the Obama administration backed the STEM Act, it “does not support narrowly tailored proposals that do not meet the president’s long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform.”

In the months to come, DeSipio said, Canada’s immigration system may even enter the debate on Capitol Hill. In Canada, points are awarded to would-be immigrants based on education, employment background, proof of funds and entrepreneurial ingenuity.

“An element we could really use in a comprehensive immigration bill is some version of the point system that the Canadian government uses,” he said.

But any and all proposals, even those borrowing from Canada, are likely to result in yet another partisan boxing match, DeSipio predicted.

“Immigration reform is going to require tremendous compromise by both sides — Republicans are going to have to give way on the legalization of undocumented immigrants, and Democrats are going to have to make concessions too,” he said.

In particular, Democrats are going to have to be more receptive to the so-called guest worker programs that are part of the Republican party platform.

Those programs allow foreign citizens workers to come to the United States to work temporarily, particularly in the agricultural industry, before being sent back home. Critics deride the initiative as inhumane.

“By the time they really get down to it, in the spring or summer, both sides will have already compromised a ton on the fiscal cliff and on entitlement reform,” DeSipio pointed out.

“Will either side really have the stomach to compromise some more?”