Time will tell whether the House Republican leadership is able to coax the party's just-say-no backbenchers to support a rational approach to immigration policy, one that includes permanent deportation relief for millions of illegal immigrants. Still, the “standards” for reform unveiled Thursday by House Speaker John Boehner's office are an auspicious sign that the GOP establishment is trying to assert control on the issue and advance prospects for a workable deal. In Washington's relentlessly dreary political landscape, that counts as a heartening signal of progress.
If anything, the immigration status quo, and the Republicans' insistence until now on impeding sensible solutions, poses the direst threat to the GOP's long-term electoral prospects. Self-preservation lies at the core of the leadership's move toward a compromise that would resolve the plight of 11 million illegal immigrants. Yet until now the rank-and-file hasn't recognized it.
Just three years ago, House Republicans, by a margin of 160-8, voted against the Dream Act, which would grant legal status to those brought to this country illegally as children. Now the GOP leadership's statement of principles includes this sentence: “It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children through no fault of their own, those who know no other place as home.” That is a revolutionary step forward.
In a similar vein, Boehner's immigration encyclical holds out the promise that Republicans, so long enamored of self-deportation and harassment for undocumented immigrants through such draconian laws as those enacted in Arizona and Alabama, are now ready to grant them legal status — though no “special path” to citizenship. This, too, is a breakthrough, and it provides a chance for a middle-ground compromise that would materially improve the lives of millions now living in the shadows.
Getting the details right will be a make-or-break exercise. If Republicans insist on holding legal status for illegal immigrants hostage to unachievable enforcement or border security goals, the deal will (and should) die. The plain fact is that enforcement, in the form of dragnet deportations and border security, as measured by boots on the ground and illegal crossings, have never been tighter. Americans will recognize the distinction between reasonable new safeguards and GOP pretexts that block long-term solutions.
Some Democrats and immigrants' rights groups will not easily give way on pressing for some eventual pathway to citizenship. They are right that it is anathema to American values to create what would amount to a second-class caste — unable to vote, serve on juries or enjoy the full range of privileges of citizenship. And some Republicans will still scream “amnesty!” at any new legal regime that stops short of deporting millions of undocumented workers and their families, whatever the economic and humanitarian consequences.
For nearly a decade, common-sense attempts to strike a deal on immigration reform have failed repeatedly, largely as a result of Republican obstructionism. The party's intransigence has inflicted damage on its electoral standing with Hispanics and on the U.S. economy. Republican leaders are now acknowledging as much. And President Obama, who suggested in an interview that aired Friday that he might be open to a blueprint that includes legal status short of citizenship for illegal immigrants, is wisely suggesting that he, too, is prepared to compromise.