Immigration Reform Moves Forward
By Nayyer Ali MD
For the 11 million undocumented residents of the United States, mostly Latinos of Mexican origin, but many others from around the world, the prospect of immigration reform that gives them legal residence may finally be upon us. The last time a major amnesty occurred was in 1986, when Reagan legalized 3 million undocumented. At the time it was felt that better border control and other efforts would prevent a repeated buildup of similar size in the future.
However, over the next 20 years, the strong American economy, particularly in the late 1990’s and during the housing boom of the last decade, sucked in many million more workers. Low skill low pay jobs in household services, gardening, restaurants, agriculture fieldwork, and construction were staffed often with undocumented immigrant labor. Mexico supplied the bulk of these people, driven out of their homeland by rapid population growth and a weak economy. By 2008 the undocumented population had reached 11 million, and included many who were brought here as children, who spoke only English, and were completely American in all meaningful senses.
For Latinos in the US, these people were their friends and extended family members. Their situation has been difficult, especially for the children raised here and barred from legal work and higher education or even driver’s licenses. To get another amnesty through that would legalize the bulk of this population has been a key goal of the Latino community.
But getting that requires Washington to act, and the government has been badly divided on this. Democrats are united in wanting to do another amnesty, legalize the 11 million, and give them a path to citizenship eventually. Republicans up to now have been opposed, even though George Bush tried to do something on this back in 2005 but was stopped. Big business is supportive of immigration reform because they want more H1B visa quotas, and because agricultural interest needs farm workers. But the base of the Republican party, older Whites, are dead set against amnesty and creating a path to citizenship for these people. The Republican party is now deeply split on the issue. Most of the right-wing radio talk show hosts are completely against this, but others in the Republican leadership fear that the party is doomed if it cannot become credible with Latino voters. Obama won over 70% of the Latino vote, giving him wins in critical states like Nevada and Florida and Colorado.
At this point it looks like the Senate is going to pass immigration reform with 65-70 votes, including 10-15 Republican senators. The House, which is Republican controlled then needs to pass its own bill and the two chambers then have a conference committee agree to a unified bill that goes back to each chamber for final passage. This is where things get tricky. There is no conceivable bill that the House Republicans, who are extremely conservative overall, would be able to pass. But the pressure on Speaker John Boehner to do something will be intense. Boehner will have no choice but to bring the Senate bill as written to the floor of the House for an up or down vote. That will make many in the Republican party very upset because it will mean that amnesty will pass.
What will happen is that the bill will pass with almost all Democrats voting in favor, and 15 or 20 Republican moderates voting to pass it. Despite the disapproval of the majority of House Republicans, Boehner will let it go through. Obama will then sign it, and the Democrats will get all the credit. Latino voters are not that easily fooled. They will recognize this was a Democratic priority made possible by a Democratic President they helped elect.
So why should the Republicans go along with this? They have no choice. To stop reform at this point, especially after 65 or more Senators vote in favor, will doom the party entirely for decades with Latino voters. In the short run there is no gain, but in the long run, goes the thinking, this is the only option that makes sense. That may be true, but in the meantime, the anger and backlash among conservatives and Tea Party crowd is going to be intense. The fratricide will be widespread, and it is going to be a major issue in the nomination contest for the 2016 election cycle.