Hold the Champagne: Immigration reform is so easy that only Congress would find it hard to pass

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo! News
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FILE - In this June 6, 2013 file photo, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., speaks during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing in Washington. Kirk said Thursday, June 20, 2013, he's been working with colleagues to craft immigration reform that's gaining momentum in the Senate. He says the measure will secure the U.S. border to the south and create a "tough but fair" path to citizenship. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

By Walter Shapiro

We’ve become so accustomed to the vicious catcalls and off-the-fiscal-cliff destructiveness of party politics on Capitol Hill that we’ve forgotten cloying, self-congratulatory excess of bipartisanship. Now that the Senate is poised to approve immigration reform next week with something close to 70 votes, Washington is in the grips of an aren’t-we-all-wonderful mood rarely glimpsed since the heyday of the self-esteem movement.

The heroes of this fabled kingdom known as Across-the-Aisle-Land are Republican John McCain and Democrat Chuck Schumer. In this week’s New Yorker, Ryan Lizza gushes that this year McCain “has done his best to embody the idea of bipartisanship … and he has become the champion of legislative progress at a time when there is reason to doubt that it is possible.” In Time, Alex Altman burbles, “Much of the president’s second-term agenda hinges on Schumer’s ability to swap his feel for the jugular for the lost art of compromise.”

All these hosannas and high-fives were offered before the latest immigration bill breakthrough: Thursday’s deal in which two conservative Senate Republicans, Bob Corker and John Hoeven, offered their blessing for immigration reform if it’s accompanied by a so-called “surge” in border enforcement. The political rationale was that more conservative senators would sign on to the bill if there were new tough-sounding enforcement provisions.

Under the Corker-Hoeven plan, the scandal-plagued Border Patrol will double in size to 40,000 agents. (It’s worth noting that the conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal declared Thursday that “the U.S.-Mexico border is more secure today than it has been in decades.”) Money will also be found to complete the 700-mile southern border fence. In contrast, the House just voted to cut food stamps, and across-the-board government sequester continues to lop off funding from most federal agencies regardless of priorities.

These are the irrational policy compromises you get when arm-in-arm bipartisanship is on the march in Washington. Please understand I unabashedly believe that immigration reform is long overdue and justice requires giving legal status to the estimated 11 million people who are living in the country illegally. But I refuse to believe that progress in the Senate means that we have returned to that mistily but dimly remembered era (the 1980s? the 1960s?) when everything worked in Washington.

In theory, immigration reform should be a kumbaya, let's-all-come-together moment in Congress. The problem has festered for nearly three decades—and all the stars are aligned for passage in 2013. OK, maybe immigration is more controversial than declaring National Rutabaga Week. But it’s hard to recall a major piece of legislation in decades that had as much going for it as immigration reform in 2013:

Demographics: Any long-term governing strategy depends on (eureka!) winning elections. Political purists sometimes forget that bedrock principle, as the Democrats did in the late 1960s and the GOP did with the rise of the tea party movement. But even the most law-and-order Republican has to be sobered by this statistic: Mitt Romney and his policy of “self-deportation” won 27 percent of the Latino vote. Even more than Romney’s maladroit “47 percent” comments, it was that 27 percent figure that doomed the GOP ticket.

Policy consensus: For all the purported drama surrounding the initial Senate negotiations among a bipartisan Gang of Eight, the haggling was entirely over details. There was no need to reinvent national policy or concoct a new conceptual framework, as was the case with health care reform. The grand bargain itself was hatched after the 2004 election by McCain and Ted Kennedy, with an assist from the Bush White House. The deal then and now offered a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally (the Democrats’ wish list) in exchange for tougher border enforcement (the carrot for conservatives); and expanded visa and guest-worker programs (what business groups crave).

Weak opposition: Virtually all the major interest groups in both political parties (the Chamber of Commerce, the high-tech sector, the AFL-CIO) are on the side of immigration reform. In contrast, the Center for Immigration Studies, the leading think tank opposing reform, has a paltry budget of $2 million. If money talks in Washington (actually, it bellows), then the game is rigged against the rag-tag coalition trying to stop the legislation.

Inaction solves nothing: Even if immigration reform fails to pass Congress, 11 million people will still be residing in America illegally, often working at below-minimum-wage jobs. Even the fiercest critics of illegal immigration recognize that the status quo is not sustainable. You can argue about the policy details or even quibble about whether eventual citizenship (rather than, say, permanent legal status) is required. But no one can claim that the invisible hand of the free market will resolve this problem without legislation.

Scripture is on the sidelines: Part of the furor over gay marriage and abortion is rooted in differing interpretations of the Bible. But while the devout can undoubtedly find apt biblical passages to buttress their position on immigration reform, no one’s religious beliefs are on the line in the debate over this social issue. Nor are we arguing over the literal meaning of the Constitution as we are with gun control.

No bedrock ideology is at stake: Even staunch small-government conservatives admit that the federal government should be in charge of immigration. Even the most ardent liberals are not advocating that America should return to the open borders that shaped this country prior to 1920. There are legitimate political fissures in Washington over taxes, spending and the role of government. But immigration reform skirts all these divisive issues, especially since the Congressional Budget Office projected this week suggested that immigration reform would reduce the deficit by about $200 billion over the next decade.

To review the bidding: We have reform legislation desperately sought by a key voting bloc, backed by powerful interest groups in both parties and the president, which will save the federal government money and requires neither Democrats nor Republicans to abandon a core element in their ideologies.

If Washington cannot achieve bipartisanship with immigration reform under these favorable circumstances, then the next thing we will see are crippling filibusters over the naming of post offices. It doesn’t get easier than this in politics. And yet the difficult struggle for immigration reform remains a testament to dysfunction in Washington.