THE BLOG
03/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

On Immigration, Scrap the Obituary

For months, pundits in Washington have been dying to write the obituary for comprehensive immigration reform.  Predictably, they're using Tuesday night's special election in Massachusetts as a chance to do just that.  But what they overlook is that immigration may well be one of the few issues where a bipartisan breakthrough is possible.

Yes, Democrats have lost their 60-seat supermajority in the Senate.  But, unlike many issues, the coalition to enact comprehensive immigration reform has always been bipartisan in nature, and the bill was always going to require support from both Democrats and Republicans to move forward. 

That is why Senator Schumer (D-NY) long ago reached out to Senator Graham (R-SC) to develop a bipartisan bill. 

Today, Graham told Congress Daily (subscription required) that backing away from tough issues, like immigration reform, wasn't what either side should learn from Massachusetts:

"Is the message that Democrats shouldn't take on anything controversial and is the message that we should not work with them on anything controversial?" asked Graham, who has taken the lead as a Republican in crafting a comprehensive immigration bill with Senate Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

"I hope that's not the message. It's not the message to me," Graham added. "The message to me was people want you to do things in Washington; just do them openly, transparently and not run up the deficit and increase their taxes."

Graham's right, and, recent polling shows just that. Eighty-two percent of Americans say illegal immigration is a serious issue, and 55% of voters say it should be a high priority for Congress to address. Two-thirds of voters support comprehensive immigration reform as a package, and 87% think that we should require unauthorized immigrants to register and work their way toward U.S. citizenship. 

When asked whether we would be better off if unauthorized immigrants were to leave the country to free up jobs or if they stayed and became legal taxpayers, 67% supported get legal/pay taxes while only 28% chose leave country/free up jobs.

Aren't Democrats scared?  Yes, but they should remembers FDR's classic admonition that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself.  It would be dangerous for the Democratic Party to think that Brown's victory means that the winning political strategy heading into the November elections is simply to hunker down and play it safe.  Brown's win is not an indictment of Democrats' attempts to solve too many important problems their first year controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House; it is a loud and clear message that they need to get more done.  They need to show that they can lead, and tackling tough challenges with practical solutions--like comprehensive immigration reform--is the type of problem-solving voters are calling for.

Meanwhile, Republicans need a major breakthrough to stop alienating Latino voters, who were turned off by the GOP's demonization of immigrants in recent years, as well as by opposition and hostility to the historic Sotomayor Supreme Court nomination. 

For those watching closely, the real politics of immigration reform were on display during the Brown victory party.  Mitt Romney spent a good deal of time on camera and was given a prominent speaking role.  In 2008, Romney was an ardent opponent of reform. He thought he could use the issue to curry favor with hardliners in the GOP and beat out McCain.  It didn't work.  According to a 2009 interview, he now "believes that one way to attract more minorities to the GOP is to pass immigration reform before the next election," and argues that, "the issue becomes demagogued by both parties on the campaign trail."  In addition, one of Romney's potential competitors for the 2012 GOP nomination, Sarah Palin, has also been making friendly sounds on immigration.

Meanwhile, Republican Meg Whitman is running in the California gubernatorial primary as pro-immigrant and pro-reform - and the latest poll shows her leading the GOP race.  Seems that Republicans with an eye on the future are beginning to understand that the Party can't afford to lose the Latino vote, that Latinos want action on immigration reform, and that swing voters are looking to leaders to solve the immigration crisis in a comprehensive way.

In fact, smart GOP operatives now realize that the only way for a Republican Presidential nominee to be competitive in 2012 is to take back the Latino-heavy states that Obama won from Bush--Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. To do this, they have to win at least 40% of the Latino vote.  In 2004, Bush won 40 to 44% of the Latino vote, and an estimated 48% of the Latino immigrant vote; in 2008 McCain won 31% of the Latino vote, and only 25% of the Latino immigrant vote. 

If the politics of reform weren't enough, it's also the right solution for the country.  Voters want to see more jobs created, an improved economy, and more fairness in the tax system.  A recent report by the Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center found that comprehensive immigration reform would add $1.5 trillion dollars in accumulated GDP over the next ten years, which would add 700,000 top 900,000 jobs and billions in additional tax revenues.  The thing is, when it comes to immigration reform, it's all there: a bi-partisan solution to illegal immigration and an economic engine to generate growth, level the playing field in the labor market, and reduce the deficit. 

Finally, even post-Massachusetts, momentum is building. Yesterday, America's Voice co-sponsored an event in DC titled, "Next Up, Comprehensive Immigration Reform: How We Will Make It Happen." Speakers included Markos Moulitsas Zú ñ iga, Founder and Editor, Daily Kos; Marí a Elena Durazo, Executive Secretary-Treasurer, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO; and Andrea Nill from the Center for American Progress (CAP).  The moderator for the event, which drew a standing-room-only crowd, was Nico Pitney, National Editor of Huffington Post.  The event clearly demonstrated the expanding coalition that supports immigration reform, which now includes dramatic support from labor and the progressive blogosphere.

The message from the panelists was pretty clear: we will make it happen. To that effect, Markos penned a column for The Hill this week, which summed up the political reality:

The issue is popular, the policy is sound and Democrats can seize the opportunity to deliver on at least one major campaign promise.

So, yes, the Massachusetts results do narrow the list of progressive issues that Congress might tackle this year, which is unfortunate. On the other hand, it also puts a premium on issues with the potential for true bipartisan support.  If the politicians can read the politics right and engage responsibly, we might actually see some bipartisan lawmaking in Washington this year.

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