Immigration Reform Could Yield A Bipartisan Congressional Breakthrough

By now, it’s clear that a Grand Budget Bargain cannot be achieved in 2013. It is almost as clear that, despite the brave words of Congressional Tax Committee chairmen, a major tax reform bill also will not pass. Of the major issues pending, immigration has had the highest visibility, and the most forward progress.

Both parties, we are told, have a strong political interest in this issue. A bi-partisan immigration bill passed the Senate, although a majority of Republicans voted “Nay.” The Republican House majority now has the Senate bill, but its leaders have decided to sub-divide the bill into several different pieces and to pass them one at a time.

Normally, complicated issues are stuffed into one bill so that the inevitable compromises travel together in plain sight. When large bills are taken up in smaller, separate pieces, those whose interests appear in bills considered have often seen that the later bills don’t pass.

The first bus out of town often becomes the last one, too. Legislators have learned over the years that they need to be on that first bus. The Senators, who sweated and bled over their compromise, are surely not going to risk losing their vital interests by agreeing to take up smaller House bills one at a time.

Presumably, the Senate will continue to insist on consideration of the whole package. The House can pass its bills one at a time, but must eventually decide whether or not to go to conference on the whole package. At that point its bluff is called. If the House won’t work on whole package, it will have difficulty pretending to be interested in immigration reform.

Opponents in both bodies have used more than process to defeat reform. They demand stronger border controls, but no set of controls, even the extravagant $40 billion Senate package, seems to satisfy them. There was a wall once in Berlin. It was designed to keep people in, not out. Nevertheless, it should remind us that it’s pretty hard to guarantee a leak-proof border.

Opponents have also tried to play the “economics card.”  Their claim is that education, welfare and medical costs of immigrants are unaffordable. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) blew that argument out of the water with its report showing that the Senate bill would be a economic winner by a couple of hundred billion dollars over the next 10 years. Long-term forecasts are always highly suspect, but CBO does them as well as anybody.

Opponents correctly insist that the 11 million undocumented aliens in the US have broken the law. Therefore they should not be given an automatic path to citizenship. There is nothing wrong with that reasoning except that those people are here. Absent family catastrophes, we can’t even find them. Probably most of them are going to stay here one way or another. We need to find some way to integrate them into our society some day.

In the end, the best reason for something like the Senate bill may be that those undocumented persons are pretty much like us. They came here for some of the same reasons our forebears came. They and their families were poor and hungry. They broke the law because they thought they had no alternative.

For the Congress, and especially the Republicans, the question may ultimately be what kind of a country we want. The US has been haven for those who want a better life. We have been the mixing bowl for cultures, colors, creeds, and languages. It seems hardly reasonable for us to argue that those 11 million people ought to stay underground forever.

This has not been a good year for legislation. It has been a particularly bad year for legislative compromise. Budget and appropriations problems have been, and remain, particularly thorny. There have been only a few cases of progress, like immigration, most of them in the Senate.

If the House can see its way clear to negotiate with the Senate on immigration, there is the possibility for a breakthrough this year. As always, it not recommended that you hold your breath waiting, but immigration could yet be that breakthrough.