Heavily pursued during the later years of the Bush Administration to no avail, there has been a renewed push for comprehensive reform to America’s broken immigration system in US Congress. A long-standing goal of policymakers, the renewed drive to reform the system has stemmed from the overwhelming support for President Obama amongst Latino and Hispanic voters (Obama won the key demographic by 71%-27% over Mitt Romney in last November’s election, a record margin) and the incumbent’s desire to secure a big legislative victory to secure his legacy as a historic President. Throughout the months-long debate, there have been many sub-plots in both political and policy realms that have made the debate a fascinating microcosm of the current American landscape.
But firstly, let’s consider the key pieces of legislation before Congress that will make or break the push for reform. Spearheaded by a bipartisan group of Senators, known as The Gang of Eight, the suite of reforms seeks to address four key areas, currently absent from the American system; strengthened security on the USA-Mexico border, a crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers, streamlined legal immigration and most significantly a process to offer undocumented workers an earned path to citizenship over a 13-year period. It’s this final element that has caused the most consternation in Congress, with it repeatedly declared as a path to amnesty by conservative members of the Republican Party. The main bill which passed the Senate in late June with a 68-32 majority (including all Democrats and 14 Republicans voting in favour) is now headed to the House on the back of a strong showing of bipartisanship and analysis from the Congressional Budget Office suggesting the reforms will cut illegal immigration by half (with a “border surge” of an extra 3,500 Customs and Border Patrol officers along the border with Mexico.) What’s more this analysis suggests that by providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, over time through extra tax revenue, the federal budget deficit will fall by over $100 billion in the next decade.
Policy impacts aside, the most curious storyline throughout this debate has been the President’s lack of involvement in advocating for reform. Despite speaking emphatically on the need for action in his Second Inaugural Address in January, and the clear need to repay the faith invested in him by a key voting bloc, the President has left it primarily the Gang of Eight to serve as the public faces of the legislation. As Evan McMorris-Santoro explained during negotiations, Obama’s delicate dance with those in Congress has been driven out of the desire to keep the emerging bipartisan compromise from being tagged as “Obama’s bill.” Those in the White House know from too many cases of gridlock over the last five years that any strong advocacy from the President would make it incredibly challenging for pro-reform Congressional Republicans to continue to build support within their party-room. This consistent intransigence from the vast majority of Congressional Republicans will again be the key roadblock to a sweeping reform package arriving at the President’s desk anytime soon.
Apart from Obama, the most fascinating figure through this debate has been the first-term Senator, Marco Rubio (R-FL). Long considered one of the rising stars of the Republican Party since being elected in 2010, Rubio has played a key role in the Gang of Eight to date, providing cover in the Senate for other Republican Senators who may have otherwise been reticent to support the reform bill. As Chris Cillizza argued recently, his support for reform hasn’t diminished his rumoured aspirations to run for President in 2016 and may potentially be a key component of a future campaign, further aided by the fact that the party is in major need of improvement with the constituencies Rubio hails from. However, Rubio has waxed and waned in his support for the bill at times, further emphasising his crucial role in the continuing debate and its prospect for success. Yet throughout this, the darling of the Tea Party has been mindful of not straying too far from his core voting blocs with a recent proposal to heavily restrict abortion laws nationally.
Through this debate we’ve seen what’s possible in the United States if both sides of politics come together around policies to address glaring problems. What the House of Representatives agrees on remains to be seen, and it’s likely that the final deal will be a set of piecemeal compromises and not the sweeping reform the President desires. Ultimately, at stake is the continued credibility of America as a place where big things can get done and where anyone can make it. With so many different considerations at play on both sides of the debate, anything’s still possible.