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Koons: Immigration reform not done

BY GUEST COLUMN | FEBRUARY 01, 2013 5:00 AM

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Immigration reform is not a done deal, though it should be. America’s immigration system has been a travesty for decades. Despite being a nation of immigrants, needing workers to fill unpopular jobs and needing to remain competitive in a global economy in which education and knowledge are paramount, we haven’t found it in ourselves to move to a more fair pro-economic growth immigration system.

Why has it been so difficult? Powerful forces stand against fixing immigration. Democrats benefit from Latinos refusing to vote for anti-reform Republicans, businesses appreciate low cost under-the-table labor and the conservative base treasures American citizenship and is loath to give it to what they consider “lawbreakers.”

I am concerned that current reform efforts will not be successful because those forces are still present. Reform is being considered now because of a single change in dynamics. National Republican leaders are stinging from Obama’s substantial re-election victory and know that they have a diminishing chance of winning future national elections unless the growing Latino vote is put in play.

The Latino vote will never be attainable by the right as long as national Republican nominees are pressured to position themselves against immigration reform. Is that realization by Republican leaders enough to pass reform? The conservative base is very skeptical about reform proposals — will they include enough border protection, be too lenient on undocumented immigrants, contain left-leaning provisions such as allowing foreign same-sex couples a pathway to citizenship — and don’t want to hand Obama another historic win.

And make no mistake: Obama will be given credit if immigration reform passes. A big win this early in his second term will strengthen the wind already at his back from his election. Obamacare passed after almost two years of work and sucked the president dry of electoral goodwill. If Republicans don’t use immigration to sap Obama’s political capital, Obama will have enough remaining momentum to take on climate change before the midterms.

Don’t discount the intelligence of Republican strategists either — they know that there is a real possibility that the Latino vote may never join the Republican big tent even after reforming immigration. That vote may be religious, generally, but they are also composed of a great deal of low-income workers who may feel more at home with Democrats and be against changing safety-net policies.

Republican House members come from solidly conservative districts in which the only re-election threats are challenges by people more extreme than themselves. Will those members risk their seats to give party leaders a chance to win the presidency in four years? House Speaker John Boehner hasn’t had much luck leading his members so far.

If we could stop politicking for a moment and let the right thing happen, immigration reform would pass — but politics never ends. The best that can be hoped is that the political balance has shifted enough after Obama’s re-election that Republican leaders feel vulnerable without reform and that Republican House members are receptive. I’m afraid that may be asking a lot.

Andy Koons


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