Immigration Reform Debate Enters A New Phase

With the passage of the "probable cause" law in Arizona the immigration debate has entered a new phase  It will now be impossible for federal lawmakers and the Obama Administration to argue that nothing needs to be done, or that reform can wait.  This is a new dynamic in this complicated debate, and one that forces the hand of both political parties.   For there is universal agreement - right and left - that the immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed.  The question now for both parties is - what is your plan for fixing it?

The Democrats offered up their plan yesterday, a descendent of the original McCain-Kennendy legislation which passed a Republican led Senate with 62 votes in 2006.  I take the Senate leadership at their word and believe they will attempt to pass this new bill this year, and bring it up for a vote soon.

What will the Republicans do? So far only one GOP Senator has been even willing to sit down with the Democrats and discuss the bill.  This is a big problem for the GOP, for there are 11 GOP Senators who voted for McCain-Kennedy legislation in 2006 who really have no reason not to vote for this new immigration bill.  If anything the new bill has moved to the right, and has added elements that the Republican Senators should support.  If the GOP fails to deliver anyone on this new bill and the bill fails it will be accurate and fair to say that the bill failed because the GOP walked away from legislation they once supported.  This 2006 vote is the key here.  Unlike health care and financial services reform, for example, the GOP has a history of working with the Democrats on immigration reform (the last major reform was championed by President Reagan, and President George W. Bush was a major supporter of the 2006 bill).   There is no public option here, or consumer projection agency that the GOP can use as a figleaf not to support the new CIR bill.  Essentially the argument that the Senate Republicans have been making is that given all the primary challenges their candidates are facing from the right they cannot do it this year.  It is not the substance of the bill they are opposing.  Their internal politics won't allow them to move on CIR this year, at this time, this close the election.

For immigration reform now it is a question of when not if.  If the Democratic bill fails this year due to GOP opposition, the President and the Democratic leadership will bring the bill back early next year.  At that point the GOP will be totally out of excuses for why they cannot work with the Democrats.  The country is demanding that our broken immigration get fixed; the tragedy of Arizona will keep the failed system in the news; the Democrats have stepped up and are leading now.  I think the Republicans will have to support CIR next year for they will simply no longer have any logic to oppose.  And as we all know a sustained period of public opposition to this bill without any real reason other than political fear of their base will not only further damage the GOP brand with Latinos, the fastest growing part of the American electorate, but with most Americans looking for a Party willing to step up and solve the great problems facing the country. 

Update: you can find more of my thinking on this new post-Arizona landscape in articles in Politics Daily, and  Talking Points Memo.