Still a Chance for Immigration Reform

Still a Chance for Immigration Reform

By Ruben Navarrette - January 24, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- Sometimes conventional wisdom is wrong.

That's how it is with the assumption that Republican Scott Brown's victory over Democrat Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts Senate race means that there will be no immigration reform this year.

The senator-elect has said that he opposes what he calls "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. In fact, Brown already knows how to turn illegal immigration into a wedge issue. As a state senator, he recently introduced a bill that would require anyone suing employers for violating state wage laws to show proof of citizenship or legal residency.

That is one of the worst ideas I've ever heard. Under current law, just because people are in the country illegally doesn't mean they don't have legal recourse if employers don't pay them. That's how it should be. Ironically, Brown's bill would produce more of what he says he opposes: illegal immigration. By signaling to companies that they can get away with not paying illegal immigrants, we will only encourage employers to hire more of them.

Even so, I think the rumors about the death of comprehensive immigration reform are premature. Here's why:

-- This debate isn't as simple as Blue and Red. There are Republicans who support comprehensive immigration reform and Democrats who oppose it, both because they fear fallout over supporting earned legalization and because they're beholden to unions who oppose reform if it includes a plan for additional guest workers. Let's remember that it was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats, including then-Sen. Barack Obama, who helped thwart immigration reform both in 2006 and 2007 -- in part because they wanted to keep it alive as an issue and portray the GOP as the main obstacle to reform to rally Latino support for Democrats in 2008.

-- Judging from the debate over health care, Obama is a true believer -- what opponents call an ideologue -- who won't stop pushing for something he supports just because the political equation in Washington has changed. Call it determination or stubbornness, but he might just decide to double down and push even harder.

-- Obama understands that, in order to have a successful administration, a president needs to do more than give speeches. He needs to put points on the board. If health care reform is, in fact, doomed now because of Brown's victory, then Obama will need another cause to trumpet. That could be immigration reform.

-- It could be said that the real lesson from Massachusetts is that voters are tired of political posturing and back-room deals, and that what they really want is for lawmakers to seek solutions to tough problems instead of allowing them to fester. Most Americans acknowledge that the immigration system is broken, even if they disagree about how to fix it.

-- Brown opposes a no-strings-attached form of amnesty, but he might be persuaded to support earned legalization that allows for fines and other restitution -- especially since, as the senator from a state with a large Irish-American community, he is likely to get special pressure to legalize the estimated 50,000 illegal immigrants from Ireland.

-- From a purely Machiavellian point of view, doesn't it make sense for Republicans like Brown to not merely welcome the immigration debate but to actually force it? Not only does it rally the GOP base, but it also splits the Democratic base -- Latinos on one side, organized labor on the other. That could be helpful to Republicans in coming elections.

-- Time is running out for the Obama administration. If immigration reform doesn't happen in 2010, the debate will only become more complicated. If Republicans take control of Congress in November, the issue could be off the table in 2011. And since little gets done during a presidential election campaign, don't expect much to happen in 2012.

If Obama breaks the one major promise he made to Latino voters -- to deliver comprehensive immigration reform -- this will make it tough for him to face the Latino community as he campaigns for re-election. And Democrats can't afford a sizable bloc of voters becoming so disillusioned with Obama's version of "hope and change" that they don't turn out to help re-elect him.

All the more reason that the White House has to re-commit itself to comprehensive immigration reform, even without the support of the soon-to-be junior senator from Massachusetts.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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