Joe Peyronnin: Immigration Reform Evolution

“I think we’ve got a deal.” Those encouraging words about immigration reform legislation came from South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham who appeared on CNN Sunday. “We’ve got to write the legislation,” he said, “but 2013, I hope, will be the year that we pass bipartisan immigration reform.”

Senator Graham is a member of the bipartisan “gang of eight” that has been working to reach a deal on immigration reform. Last week, four members of that group, including John McCain of Arizona, traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to get a closer look at the problem of illegal crossings. While there, Senator McCain tweeted, “Just witnessed a woman successfully climb and 18-ft bollard fence a few yards from us in #Nogales…Border Patrol successfully apprehended her, but incident is another reminder that threats to our border security are real.”

In his televised appearances Sunday, Senator Graham emphasized border security while outlining the goals of the immigration agreement. The goals include preventing a “third wave” of undocumented immigrants moving to the U.S., allowing employers to hire guest workers when they can’t find American workers, and judging immigration decisions more on merit rather than family.

But later Sunday, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, an aspiring Tea Party presidential candidate, tried to lower expectations about a deal. In a written statement he said, “Reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature.” Senator Rubio has the most to lose if conservatives don’t like the immigration deal, so he appears to be playing it safe. Gang of eight member Senator Charles Schumer put it this way Sunday, “Now everyone, we’ve all agreed that we’re not going to come to a final agreement until we see draft legislative language and we all agree on that. We’ve drafted some of it already; the rest will be drafted this week. So I’m very optimistic that we will have an agreement among the eight of us next week.”

There are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants illegally in the U.S. Immigration was a major issue during the last presidential election, and all of the Republican candidates took a tough stand on illegals. The party’s presidential nominee, former Governor Mitt Romney, coined the term “self deportation” when defining how he would solve the problem. More than 70% of Latinos who voted in last November’s election voted for President Barack Obama.

An “autopsy” report released last month by GOP Chairman Reince Priebus called for more positive out reach to Latinos and other minorities. The report urged the party to, “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.” But it will be hard for the party to overcome Congressional opposition to reform within its own party. And it doesn’t help when one of its members, Alaska Representative Don Young, says, “My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes.” “Wetbacks” is an insulting racial slur against Latinos for which he apologized after some prodding from his leadership.

Immigration is just one of many issues for Latinos, who now number about 50 million in the U.S. The economy, jobs, education, family and health care are all important. Likely Republican presidential candidates, such as Kentucky’s Senator Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite, are now actively courting them. But their message, for instance on social issues, is not in sync with a majority of Latinos.

In a speech last month to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Senator Paul said, “Prudence, compassion and thrift all point us toward the same goal: bringing these workers out of the shadows and into becoming and being taxpaying members of society.” So the stars are aligned for some form of meaningful immigration reform proposal this month.

Also in his speech, Senator Paul also quoted Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “In Love in the Time of Cholera, Marquez gives some advice that Republicans might consider, “. . . human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, . . . life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

These are words to think about, especially coming from a Nobel Prize winner who was denied a U.S. immigration visa for years because of his outspoken views on U.S. imperialism.

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