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Immigration Reform Proponents Try to Turn the Tide

Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform are looking to end the week with a bit more momentum in their favor than they began the week with. As I wrote on Wednesday, the Heritage Foundation study calling attention to the entitlement costs of immigration reform not only earned strong criticism from trusted Republican budget hawks, but also was unlikely to catch and keep the attention of partisans on both sides. Given the revelation that one of the study’s co-authors once wrote a racially charged thesis paper on the subject, it seems the “gang of eight” dodged that critique.

Additionally, the bipartisan group of senators trying to shepherd the legislation through the Senate may have avoided another common pitfall–one that sunk the 2007 reform legislation. At that time, then-Senator Obama went back on an agreement to oppose any “poison pill” amendments that would kill the bill, regardless of the merits of the amendments themselves. He cast a crucial vote in favor of just such an amendment, sinking the bill. But as the Hill reports, the gang of eight seems to have navigated the Judiciary Committee amendment process and come out intact:

The Senate’s Gang of Eight fended off a slew of poison-pill amendments aimed at the immigration reform bill, building momentum for the legislation that has sparked strong opposition from conservatives.

Members of the gang touted the passage of a group of GOP-sponsored amendments they said had strengthened the bill and would help address the concerns of conservatives.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted down GOP-sponsored amendments to delay putting 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship and to dramatically increase the number of Border Patrol agents and surveillance vehicles.

The bill’s sponsors also dodged an effort from the left by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) to halt Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano from deporting illegal immigrants to unsafe areas.

Whether any of these will constitute something of a pyrrhic victory remains to be seen. As the Hill notes, for example, the group fended off an attempt to make border security requirements even stricter. That is where the reform effort is most vulnerable–a fact that is unlikely to change as the bill progresses.

Additionally, a new Pew Research poll shows both the necessity and complexity of reforming the country’s immigration system, as the public sees it. Three-quarters of respondents said the system needs reform, with 35 percent in support of it being “completely rebuilt.” More Republicans than Democrats registered support for major changes to the immigration system, but both were above 70 percent. Pew asked this question of other policy areas as well: taxes, education, health care, Medicare, Social Security, and homeland security. None matched the public’s enthusiasm for major changes on immigration.

But aside from improving border security, respondents couldn’t agree much on what those major changes should consist of:

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted May 1-5 among 1,504 adults, finds that 73% say there should be a way for illegal immigrants already in the United States who meet certain requirements to stay here. But fewer than half (44%) favor allowing those here illegally to apply for U.S. citizenship, while 25% think permanent legal status is more appropriate….

When it comes to legal immigration, relatively few (31%) see current levels as satisfactory, but there is no consensus as to whether the level of legal immigration should be decreased (36%) or increased (25%)

The opposition to increased legal immigration is troubling here, but there are two reasons it might not be so harmful to reform efforts. First, on the issue of, in Pew’s wording, “Immigrants currently in the country illegally who meet certain requirements,” 73 percent of respondents said they should have “a way to stay legally”–either a path to full citizenship or at least permanent legal residency, though citizenship was the more popular answer by far. That there is such wide opposition to attempts to deport even those who came here illegally removes what might otherwise have been a significant obstacle to finding a consensus on immigration reform.

Second, the poll comes in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, which raised questions about border security, background checks, and whether the country was less able to integrate and assimilate immigrants than in the past. Though Rand Paul was misguided in questioning whether a Chechen family should be able to immigrate to America, he was no doubt not the only one beset by worry about the ease with which poisonous ideologies can cross borders in a globalized world. But as I wrote at the time, those seeking escape from war-torn, poorly or oppressively governed regions of the world are a fair representation of the American immigrant through history.

The poll also comes as the sluggish economy drags on and high unemployment and underemployment persist, heightening wage and job protectionism in the U.S. That sentiment will probably be as stubborn as the conditions that inspire it. Immigration reform proponents can argue (justifiably) that economic growth will follow immigration, but they will be met with the irony that many Americans want to see economic growth before they’re willing to back more immigration. The gang of eight may have more control over border security than job security, but both promise to be headaches for immigration reformers going forward.


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