Lawmakers tried it in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2010—and failed. It’s been years since the nation’s immigration system has been comprehensively reformed. Why would 2013's attempt be any different?
The past notwithstanding, experts and advocates say this time is different. The conditions for comprehensive immigration reform have changed, they say. And momentum is growing. Eight senators—four Democrats and four Republicans—introduced a framework for reform on Monday and another bipartisan group of four introduced a bill aimed at revamping the nation's approach to highly skilled immigrants on Tuesday. And President Obama pitched his own vision for reform later that day.
It's a heavy lift, but lawmakers and the public may be ready. Here are five reasons why immigration reform could actually happen this time around:
1. The Borders Are Alright
OK, that’s debatable. But the Obama administration has focused heavily on enforcing the nation’s immigration laws, addressing a key conservative critique of the ultimately doomed 2007 reform effort, says Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution.
“In that sense, the Democrats do have the credibility, since they have been focusing pretty much solely on that in the last four years,” he said. In fact, as Wonkblog’s Suzy Khimm points out, most of the border-security goals in President George W. Bush’s 2007 effort have already been reached:
The 2007 bill proposed to erect 300 miles of vehicle barriers, 370 miles of fencing, 105 radar and camera towers, and four drones; by 2012, we completed 651 miles of vehicle fencing—including 352 miles of pedestrian fencing and 299 vehicle barriers—300 towers, and nine drones, according to Customs and Border Patrol.
By the 2011 fiscal year, the nation had 21,444 Border Patrol agents, well surpassing the Bush bill’s goal of 20,000, according to the post. The bipartisan plan offered up by a group of eight senators on Monday also makes a new path to citizenship contingent on strengthening the nation’s borders, further neutralizing the argument that comprehensive reform would encourage more illegal border crossings.
2. Look Who’s On Board
It’s a risky move for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., but he’s firmly attached his name to immigration reform. He was one of the eight senators to issue the bipartisan plan on Monday, and he was one of four senators to introduce the Tuesday bill opening the door to highly skilled immigrants.
Why it matters: Rubio is Hispanic, a rising conservative star, a 2016 presidential hopeful, and a tea-party darling. He has a lot riding on this. As The Christian Science Monitor’s Liz Marlantes points out, achieving reform could be a huge boost not only for Rubio, but for his party: “It could mark an important step in changing the GOP's image to one that's more inclusive and minority-friendly.” That matters because minorities are a rapidly growing segment of the population, and the GOP has to make huge gains in those communities to stay competitive.
In joining the bipartisan effort, Rubio is backing options he once denounced as amnesty. There's an argument that his reversal could be a sign of things to come: His political calculus has changed, and his party’s may follow.
3. “Terrorism Fatigue”
Hesitation surrounding the influx of immigrants has waned over the past decade, with a significant shift toward allowing working immigrants who are here illegally to remain. It’s what Michael Wildes, managing partner of Wildes and Weinberg and an immigration law professor, calls “terrorism fatigue.”
“The political dynamic has changed. We’re so many more years away from 9/11, where people are getting tired of addressing the war on terrorism year after year after year. I believe that there’s terrorism fatigue,” said Wildes, a member of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Partnership for a New American Economy, which touts the economic benefits of immigration reform.
That idea is supported by the results of a new CBS News poll, which shows that a slim majority of Americans back letting working illegal immigrants stay in the country and pursue citizenship. The results are a significant jump from public attitudes in September 2011, CBS News reported:
The percentage of Americans overall who would like to see illegal immigrants stay in the U.S. with the opportunity to become citizens is similar to what it was last fall, but it has risen 14 points since September 2011. Back then, 38 percent said illegal immigrants working in the U.S. should be required to leave the country.
Support for giving illegal immigrants the opportunity to become citizens has risen among many demographic groups since 2011, even across party lines. Among Democrats, support has gone up 15 points since September 2011. Republican support has risen from 24 percent to 35 percent now.
4. How Can You Say No to That Voting Bloc?
The most obvious argument that comprehensive reform stands a better chance this time around stems from the results of the recent presidential election.
Immigration reform maynot be a top priority for Hispanics, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, but roughly one-third have said it’s “extremely important” to them. And President Obama won in November with more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote, giving him a stronghold on one of the nation’s largest immigrant groups. Republicans have to win its members over, and immigration reform could provide the perfect opportunity. As National Journal's Ronald Brownstein wrote at the time, the election results force the GOP to ask a key existential question:
After these results, the big question facing the GOP is whether it can improve its performance among minorities, especially Hispanics, without returning to George W. Bush’s support for immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for those living here illegally. That policy shift would face impassioned resistance from conservatives. “Looks like a brawl coming soon,” says longtime GOP strategist Mike Murphy. “The question is: Will the party base accept these facts, since they chose to ignore similar facts after Obama’s election four years ago?”
“It’s clear, electorally, that they need to do something, so that’s where we stand,” says Brookings’s Ruiz. “The conditions are perfect now.”
5. It's the Economy
The ailing economic recovery offers up one more reason to pursue reform, advocates argue. Comprehensive reform could lift caps on visas for highly skilled workers and offer more incentives for them to attend school, work, and stay in the United States, helping to grow the economy. The bipartisan bill offered up Tuesday would do just that and enjoys support among some advocates for reform.
“There are a lot of good ideas in here,” said Susan Cohen, the founder and head of the immigration practice at the law firm Mintz Levin. “Many of them match things that I’ve been advocating on behalf of the employers with whom we work.”
But it’s not just highly skilled workers who can benefit the economy. “We can make an economic argument, both on the high-skilled part, on which I think everyone agrees, but also on the undocumented and lower skills,” Ruiz said.
The exact impact of granting citizenship is difficult to track, but one recent study pegged the value of an aggressive naturalization push over 10 years at between $37 billion and $52 billion. Even that, the authors write, is "likely a severe underestimate" the total sum, which would be larger due to secondary effects, such as matching employers with employees who were previously illegal to hire.