A reform of the nation’s immigration laws announced this week by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators takes us back seven years. Back then, a Republican president and former border-state governor, George W. Bush, outlined his ideas for untangling the mess of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants and protecting U.S. borders.
Then and now, the same realities confront the United States. They include:
• Deporting 11 million people is impractical (impossible, really), and even attempting it would be ridiculously expensive.
• Within the population of illegal immigrants is a majority that could reasonably be expected to become legal (and quite likely good citizens, at that) if allowed to pay a fine and apply for citizenship.
• Politicians must tread lightly in immigration policies given the growing political influence of Hispanics in the United States. A political party that’s seen as cruel or bigoted runs the risk of losing more votes than it wins.
As President Bush framed the issue in 2006, “We cannot build a unified country by inciting people to anger, or playing on anyone’s fears, or exploiting the issue of immigration for political gain. We must always remember that real lives will be affected by our debates and decisions, and that every human being has dignity and value no matter what their citizenship papers say.”
Fast forward to 2013. Four Republican senators and four Democratic senators this week said they have produced a framework for immigration reform. President Barack Obama is expected to offer his ideas today during a speech in Nevada.
We expect both plans will seek greater border security while offering illegal immigrants an opportunity to remain in the country legally and eventually an opportunity to apply for U.S. citizenship.
We also expect any real reforms will meet significant resistance from congressional Republicans. Many of these conservatives turned against Bush in 2007, labeling the president as soft on immigration. The opposition started a movement that spawned “papers, please” harassment laws in Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere. It put one of reform’s boosters — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — in the awkward position of distancing himself from his own legislation during a 2008 run for president. All this, polling strongly suggests, significantly lowered the percentage of the Hispanic votes going to Republicans in 2012.
“Look at the last election,” McCain said Sunday during a TV interview. “We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours.”
Serious immigration reform is long overdue. Regardless of the motivating factors, Washington needs to address reform.