Basu: Suddenly, immigration reform comes to life

Des Moines RegisterMay 23, 2014 

No one saw this coming. The pundits had declared immigration reform dead for this year. On the U.S. Senate floor earlier this month, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who sponsored the bill that cleared the Senate last June, blamed Iowa’s Steve King for calling the shots against the bill in the House. Last Monday, the political journal The Hill opined that Republican resistance had shot down any hopes for resuming consideration of the proposal. Efforts to pass a House bill stalled in January when Speaker John Boehner couldn’t persuade his Republican ranks to take up the issue.

Then on Wednesday, a strange thing happened.

The co-founder of the Tea Party Express, Sal Russo, teamed up with several other conservative Republicans to insist that immigration reform get passed by August. That coincided with the release of a national survey of 400 Republican primary voters that found 69 percent of tea party supporters want immigration reform this year, and 73 percent support a plan that would include improved border security, enforcement and a way for undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. if they meet certain conditions.

Were these leaders affected by the polls? Persuaded by the moral argument from religious constituents? Or just ready to be realistic about how the economy and nation are suffering from the status quo?

“Conservatives should be leaders in the immigration reform movement,” Russo declared in a conference call organized by the pro-immigration reform Partnership for a New American Economy, founded by Michael Bloomberg, and Americans for Tax Reform. Those organizations and the Tea Party Express commissioned the national survey. “Too many conservatives have become satisfied by just saying no,” Russo said.

He didn’t name names or endorse a particular reform plan, but he cited poll data showing 76 percent of tea party Republicans support Boehner’s proposal.

In a piece published in Roll Call that same day, Russo wrote, “The sole criteria for immigration reform should be what is good for America.” Legal immigration has contributed to our having the strongest economy and most innovative businesses, he wrote. But the economy has outgrown its visa program, which is not meeting the need both for high-skilled workers and seasonal farm workers.

And there is no visa for entrepreneurs. “Doing nothing now means hurting businesses just as we are coming out of the Great Recession,” Russo wrote, noting, “Today, 40 percent of our Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or child of an immigrant.”

The principles Boehner outlined to his GOP conference stressed enforcement before legalization of the 11 million undocumented immigrants here and would require them to admit culpability, pass background checks, pay fines and back taxes, be proficient in English and American civics, as well as support themselves. The House majority rejected that plan. Boehner had said his colleagues didn’t trust Obama to implement the law the way they passed it and that the president would need to “demonstrate some level of trustworthiness.”

Since when has that fear prevented passage of a bill?

Al Cardenas, president of the American Conservative Union, said Wednesday that Boehner’s decision not to bring up the bill unless a majority of House Republicans favor it had made its prospects more challenging. But Cardenas is confident a bill can still pass by this fall, because of leadership from social conservatives who consider it an issue of moral fairness.

The tea party lists immigration-reform principles on its website that don’t sound that different from Boehner’s. They include securing the border, not rewarding people who broke the law, passing piecemeal bills rather than one comprehensive bill and making sure the measure wouldn’t add to the debt.

Political survival was clearly a factor, especially for those facing primary challenges. Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana had called supporting immigration reform a “suicide mission for Republicans” and said they didn’t want to change the subject from opposing Obamacare.

But as Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, pointed out in Wednesday’s conference call, Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., just won a primary challenge in what some considered a test case of the issue. Her challenger had used Ellmers’ support of immigration reform to try to defeat her.

Russo, Norquist and Cardenas deserve credit for coming out firmly for something everyone knows has to happen. Both sides should now seize the momentum, put down their weapons and get it done. The economy and millions of lives depend on them to.

Email Ms. Basu, a columnist for the Des Moines Register, at rbasu@dmreg.com.

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