For too long, the only Republican plan to deal with immigration reform was to tighten border security. This tact was a helpful dodge, not requiring a politician to detail what we would do with the 11-12 million illegal immigrants already here.
But in winning about 30 percent of Hispanic votes in 2012, the Republican Party has been forced to move to the middle with a more sensible, forward looking plan that addresses the many complicated factors involved in immigration reform.
Swift passage, while sought, is not assured. The Senate appears likely to go first, and I suspect, after a full debate, comprehensive reform will garner more than 70 votes. This will push House Republicans to first allow the bill to come to the floor, without the guarantee of a majority of Republicans supporting it and threatening yet another violation of the Hastert Rule.
Once the House takes up immigration reform, the real fight begins.
The central questions facing this legislative effort are two:
First, will there be enforcement triggers that must first be met before the path to citizenship begins for those already here?
Second, can conservative supporters like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., convince conservative critics that the bill does not equal amnesty?
On the first question, there appears to be a difference of opinion on the enforcement trigger between the White House (opposed) and the bipartisan group of eight Senators who support it. Without an enforcement trigger, the deal will fall apart and it will never pass the House.
The ultimate resolution of the second question will determine the bill’s fate. The most reasonable criticism of the bipartisan plan is that even by requiring those already here illegally to pass a background check, register for a visa (with a requirement that they learn English) and pay back taxes, and then wait for everyone else in line legally to be processed first, the reform would still advantage the lawbreakers. How?
Because anyone here illegally, while not yet a citizen, would have legal status and be allowed to live in America in the intervening period, which could last as long as 15 years. Those waiting in line now are not yet allowed to live in America, thereby reducing the disincentive of coming to American illegally.
I don’t see an easy fix to the central question.
Absolutists say deport everyone here illegally. Conservatives like Charles Krauthammer and Sean Hannity have said that is impossible. It would wreck the economy. It would cost an enormous amount. And could the federal government even carry this out if it wanted to?
If Republicans want to benefit from strengthening border security, reforming our highly skilled immigrant visa program and opening Hispanic voters up to listen to our ideas, then we must be willing to accept the unfortunate reality that we cannot deport 12 million people.
Pejorative terms like amnesty will still be used. Courageous conservatives will need to stand up, be willing to defend the effort, and most importantly, engage to improve the bill, rather than fight it or outright oppose it from the start.
This is something of a close call for conservatives, but the benefits of this approach outweigh the disadvantages of doing nothing and keeping this intractable policy problem as a useful political issue.
Matt Mackowiak is a Washington- and Austin-based Republican consultant and president of Potomac Strategy Group, LLC. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.