05/01/2013 11:03 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

Schwarzenegger's New USC Policy Center Takes Up Immigration Reform: Where Is This Issue Heading?

Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger hosted a major forum on immigration policy Tuesday in Los Angeles featuring some major national and international figures. But will the latest attempt to change the nation's faulty immigration policy fare any better than it did in 2006 and 2007, before top Republicans realized how definitively they were losing the Latino vote? And how will the big new wild card, the Boston Marathon terrorist bombings seemingly carried out by immigrants, factor into this always emotional issue?

In its first big forum since its founding event last September, the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy hosted the gathering with U.S. Senators John McCain and Michael Bennett, former Mexican President Vicente Fox, former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and several academic experts.

Republican McCain of Arizona and Democrat Bennett of Colorado are key members of a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators putting forward a comprehensive immigration reform plan.

The U.S. immigration system would undergo dramatic changes under their bill, which seeks to end, or at least bring under greater control, illegal immigration by creating legal avenues for workers and by more effectively securing borders. The bill would put the 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally on a 13-year path to U.S. citizenship that would cost each $2,000 in fines. It would also create new immigration opportunities for tens of thousands of workers, a "merit visa" to bring people with special skills to the U.S., and a guest worker program for lower-skilled jobs carefully negotiated by the coalition of major business organizations and labor unions uniting behind the bill.

Schwarzenegger, who was a critical backer of McCain while his candidacy hung in the balance in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, before going on to work closely with the Obama Administration on a host of issues, wasted no time in endorsing the efforts of the "Gang of Eight."

"Many members of Congress," he declared, "have had a major chutzpah deficit," in a turn of phrase that attendees found amusing. "The economic benefit of reform could reduce our deficit over the next 10 years by 2.5 trillion dollars," Schwarzenegger told them. "That's what I call action. What are we waiting for?"

Longtime ABC News correspondent Ann Compton moderated a discussion between Senators McCain and Bennet and members of the audience. While they extolled the benefits of bringing the situation under greater control and establishing new and more workable rules, they were fairly frank about the politics involved.

"We (Republicans) will not be able to compete for the Hispanic voter until this is done," said McCain. "This will not gain one single Hispanic vote, by passing this bill. But what it will do, is put us on a playing field where we can compete. And I happen to believe that Republicans -- pro-small business, lower taxes, less regulation, pro-military, pro-life -- I think we can compete."

Bennet, the Colorado Democrat, said that he expects the bill to be voted on in the Senate sometime in June. With support seeming to come together in the upper house, he noted that the margin of victory in the Senate needs to be big to make an impression on the more conservative House of Representatives.

"I really worry that if we don't get this done now," he said, it's going to be a very long time before we get this done, and it'll be one more self-inflicted wound holding American workers back."

Other participants in the program pulled together by the Schwarzenegger Institute's director, former California Education Secretary Bonnie Reiss, and its academic director, USC Professor Nancy Staudt, made some telling points.

On their panel, the academics suggested that the future problem won't be too much immigration, but not enough.

Indeed, illegal immigration seems to have slipped substantially with the sharp economic downturn in the U.S. and the subsequent pattern of very slow growth.

Echoing that assessment, former Mexican President Vicente Fox, proudly declaring that Mexico has become a more advanced industrial power than Brazil, said that in the future, low-paying jobs in the U.S. won't be nearly so attractive for Mexicans as they were in the past.

Yet there is a tremendous overhang in the U.S., with millions in a twilight status.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa noted that one in 10 residents of his city "are undocumented."

A program to legalize those residents, he said, will help the economy because many small businesses are started by immigrants. California is home to roughly one-fourth of the 11 million illegal immigrants in America.

"It's because it goes to the heart of the economic future of our city, the social cohesion of our city," said the outgoing Democratic mayor. "That's why now is the time for real immigration reform."

For his part, Villaraigosa's friend Schwarzenegger, who published an op-ed in Politico to kick off the morning festivities, is enthusiastic about immigration to America.

"The life I've lived, the careers that I've had, and the successes I've had were possible only because I immigrated to the one place nothing is impossible," Schwarzenegger told the attendees. He was just back from his inaugural Arnold Classic Brasil sports festival in Rio de Janeiro. Schwarzenegger has successfully taken his long-running annual multi-sport event in Columbus, Ohio to Europe and now Latin America.

This is anything but a new issue for him.

Back in 2002, when he was barnstorming the state promoting his initiative for after-school programs -- a test run for his then likely first gubernatorial campaign in 2006, well before the dramatic 2003 recall election was a glimmer in anyone's eye -- I was there at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco when Schwarzenegger was asked if he would ever support a re-run of the draconian Proposition 187. That's the anti-illegal immigrant initiative that jet-propelled the 1994 re-election of Republican Governor Pete Wilson, but also, after Democratic candidate Kathleen Brown led a charge against the measure, sealed the two parties' respective fortunes with the growing Latino community. Brown, the sister of Governor Jerry Brown, went down in the election but planted the Democratic flag very firmly on the side of the Latino community.

Contrary to the tenets of Prop 187, Schwarzenegger declared that he would never stand in the way of any child going to school. So he was on board with McCain during the last big push for comprehensive immigration legislation.

And where all this may run aground yet again is where it all ran aground the last time we saw this movie, back in 2006 and 2007, the internal dynamics of the Republican Party.

Then President George W. Bush, a relative moderate by today's GOP standards, backed McCain and Senator Ted Kennedy in their strong legislative push on immigration.

Today President Barack Obama is very much on board with the overall effort, though he is, probably wisely, letting senators take the lead in crafting their legislation.

The question is how much the Republican Party has changed. With the added wild card element of potentially greater fear of immigrants in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, though of course Latino immigrants, the great bulk of the equation, have nothing to do with any terrorism.

As we saw in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, and in the 2010 California Republican gubernatorial primary before that, it's not all that hard to incite a Republican race to the hard right on immigration. Once undertaken, that race ends up in the same place, a place of fences, exclusion, and super-heated rhetoric that deeply satisfies a great many older conservative whites but utterly turns off most people of color and younger voters.

The policy dynamics around this issue are multi-faceted and fascinating. And the political dynamics may be even more fascinating.

Most of the commentary -- political commentary, that is -- is around what is best for the Republican Party. But what about the Democrats?

Most opponents of the immigration measure appear to believe that devising a pathway to legalization will simply create millions of new Democratic voters. While there is something to that, that is a scenario that would play out over a long period of time.

My own view, subject to revision based on developments, of course, is different. If, after passage in the Senate, immigration reform goes down again, this time in the Republican-controlled House -- amidst a post-Boston climate of fear having literally no relevance to most folks here illegally -- that would constitute a very big present and ongoing advantage for Democrats.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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