The grand compromise on immigration passed by the U.S. Senate 10 months ago is now all but history, despite talk from President Barack Obama and other Democrats about “comprehensive reform.”
That’s because comprehensive immigration reform, as it’s understood in Washington, D.C., means granting undocumented immigrants some kind of pathway to citizenship. Only a very few Republicans are willing to allow this, no matter how arduous and long the path would be.
Despite the common GOP rhetoric, this has little to do with humane concerns or fairness, and everything to do with politics. Republicans have seen what the 1986 immigration reform bill signed by then-President Ronald Reagan did to their party in California. Legalizing many previously unauthorized residents combined with a sense of threat engendered by the 1994 Proposition 187’s draconian rules for the undocumented – since thrown out by the courts – made California a Democratic stronghold, where previously it was up for grabs in most elections.
Republicans fear the same kind of thing could happen nationally with any new “amnesty” bill, so as long as they hold a majority in either house of Congress, they won’t let it happen.
But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t do other things. A new “guest worker” program, a la the old bracero plan that began in World War II and stretched into the late 1960s, is a possibility. Concessions are also possible for undocumented immigrants brought here as small children.
Some family unity measures might be OK’d, too, so long as they don’t spawn new citizens.
Despite their current obdurate talk about accepting only comprehensive reforms, it would be unrealistic to expect either Obama or Democrats in the Senate to block these moves.
For one thing, they’re all parts of the wider-ranging Senate bill. For another, each of those measures would improve the lives of at least some of the undocumented, essentially legalizing many even if not allowing them citizenship and voting rights.
Many Latinos who have steadily cast ballots for Democrats and against Republicans principally because of immigration would be mightily offended if Democrats suddenly became purists and rejected measures that may not be wide-ranging or comprehensive, but would nevertheless improve the lives of some immigrants.
It’s possible this picture could change a bit as the primary election season moves along and Republicans in “safe” districts whose biggest worry is a primary challenge from the right get past the point where new opponents can emerge.
“For many members, they’d be more comfortable (with immigration bills) when their primaries are over,” observed Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of north San Diego County.
But those same GOP members of Congress also know conservatives often have demonstrated long memories. If they back anything like amnesty today, they realize they may face challenges from their right in 2016.
As with the Democrats, their principal concern is not with what will do the most for America or be the most humane, but what stands the best chance to preserve them in office.
That’s why, for example, a group of 16 House Republicans including ultraconservatives like Michelle Bachman of Minnesota and Lamar Smith of Texas wrote to Obama in late winter rejecting any bill that “would permanently displace American workers.”
Even though there is no proof any guest worker program or other legalization tactic has ever displaced American workers or decreased wages, belief that immigration changes will do this remains strong in many parts of America.
Meanwhile, other Republicans realize that they’ll have to make adjustments on immigration if they ever hope to make inroads on the Democratic domination among Latinos, the fastest-growing bloc of voters.
Democrats, meanwhile, relish watching the GOP sweat over all this. They know that as long as citizenship is off the table, Republicans won’t threaten Latino loyalty to them. They also know that the less the GOP does, the less happens, the better their own electoral prospects.
Which is why it’s unrealistic to expect immigration changes this year other than a few desultory, half-baked measures improving things for businesses that want to pay low wages.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.