In a sign of how much change was wrought by President Obama’s November reelection, a bipartisan group of senators is competing with the president to see who will be first to propose comprehensive immigration reform.
The group has been meeting regularly since the November election and is planning to announce the elements of its legislation this week, in advance of the president’s anticipated speech on immigration reform in Nevada on Tuesday. The Republican members of the group readily admit that Obama’s reelection, in which he received more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote, demonstrated that the GOP needs to make efforts to court the Hispanic population to help the party win future elections. This new interest in immigration reform — an issue that failed to gain any traction in Congress in 2010 — is part of that effort.
“What’s changed is, honestly, is that there is a new, I think, appreciation on both sides of the aisle — including, maybe more importantly on the Republican side of the aisle, that we have to enact a comprehensive immigration reform bill,” said one of the group members, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who also tried to push through immigration reform in 2008 before his losing presidential bid.
The four major elements of the Senate group’s discussions, according to The New York Times, are border enforcement, employer enforcement, handling the future flow of legal immigration (including temporary agriculture workers and high-skilled engineers) and a pathway to citizenship for those who entered the nation illegally.
The Times said Obama’s approach is expected to echo his 2011 immigration “blueprint,” calling for a pathway to citizenship for the more than 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country that includes paying fines and back taxes; increased border security; mandatory penalties for businesses that employ unauthorized immigrants; and improvements to the legal immigration system, including giving green cards to high-skilled workers and lifting caps on legal immigration for the immediate family members of U.S. citizens.
Obama met on Friday with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and said immigration reform was “a top legislative priority.”
“We are trying to work our way through some very difficult issues,” said another group member, Illinois’ Sen. Richard Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. “But, we are committed to a comprehensive approach to finally, in this country, have an immigration law we can live with. We have virtually been going maybe 25 years without a clear statement about immigration policy. That’s unacceptable in this nation of immigrants.”
Other members of the bipartisan group include Republican senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, and Democratic senators Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Charles E. Schumer of New York. Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, and the Republican senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Mike Lee of Utah have also taken part in the discussions.
“It’s going far better than any of us expected,” Schumer said in an interview. “On both sides, there is a spirit that everyone is going to have to meet somewhere in the middle, and we’re very close to coming out with a detailed list of principles.”
According to aides, the group hoped to have legislation ready by the end of March and was aiming for a vote in the Senate before the August recess. Now that they are working toward legislation, they want the president to hold off on putting forth his own plans for immigration reform.
McCain warned that Republicans will pay the price in elections for generations if they don’t act.
“Well, I’ll give you a little straight talk: Look at the last election… We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours for a variety of reasons,” McCain said.