Immigration reform

Politicians who hold their offices for long periods are skilled in nothing if not intuiting which way the political winds are blowing. In the aftermath of November’s election, when Hispanic voters made their collective presence and opinion known far and wide, it is no surprise that yesterday’s immigration hardliners are today’s supporters of comprehensive reform that provides a “path to citizenship” for those who would like to make the United States their permanent home. Regardless of the factors prompting this shift, the change is welcome and long overdue.

Comprising 10 percent of the electorate in 2012, Latino voters were a significant factor in President Barack Obama’s re-election, whom they favored 71 percent to 27 percent for Mitt Romney. Those numbers got the attention of Congress, whose members were also affected by Latino voters. While immigration is not the sole concern of Latino voters, it is an important one and lawmakers’ – primarily formerly reluctant Republicans – newfound interest in a far-reaching immigration reform package reflects just how important an issue it is.

The bipartisan posse of senators taking the lead on a reform proposal, including Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has crafted a thorough package that combines increased border security and visa monitoring to minimize illegal entry or overstayed visits to the country with a series of steps immigrants can take to become legal citizens. These steps are tiered to provide expedited citizenship for those who were brought to the United States as children or to be farm workers, as well as those who have earned advanced degrees in desirable fields such as science, technology and engineering from American institutions. A third leg of the reform package would put U.S. employers on the hook to verify their workers’ legal status and penalize those who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants.

There is much to like in the comprehensive proposal, but the statement that its existence alone makes is perhaps its greatest value. It has brought together lawmakers who have held conflicting positions – with themselves, each other and their constituents – and who now have found common ground. There is no small amount of political opportunism at work, but in this case that is beside the point. A comprehensive reform of the United States immigration system has been the right thing to do for a long time, and lawmakers now see they have the capital to spend on such an effort.

The work will not necessarily be easy. While Obama has indicated support for the senators’ plan and pitched a similar one of his own, the House is another story. Tea party power has waned there, but it is still a force to consider. The extent to which it affects the immigration debate reflects, at this point, little more than the level of thinly veiled racism that exists among those members and their supporters. In the meantime, a more mature debate can take place about how best to structure the United States’ policies to reflect the country’s status as a land of economic and educational opportunity – a status that benefits the United States as much or more than those who seek to become its citizens.

The Gang of Eight – name notwithstanding – has commanded respect for its bold but reasoned immigration proposal. The plan deserves healthy debate and expedient action.

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