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Will this immigration reform push go the distance?

Immigration reform is having a “Kumbaya” moment, with support from the White House, a bipartisan contingent in Congress, business and labor.

The Republicans are petrified after their dismal showing among the fastest-growing slices of the electorate, Hispanics and Asians; President Barack Obama wants to reward the loyalty of those voters. Business and labor, as well as many politicians, want to fix a totally dysfunctional system. There are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants, 5 percent of the work force. Many of these people live in fear of discovery, while jobs go unfilled in some areas.

Hold the champagne. When it comes to immigration laws, the concept is always easier than the reality. Change failed to happen six years ago, even with a push from a high-powered coalition led by President George W. Bush and Sens. John McCain and Edward M. Kennedy.

The dynamics are more favorable today. Still, the same obstacles persist; the powerful countervailing considerations include:

— A pathway to where? There’s a fairly broad consensus for ending the illegal status of the undocumented. The White House, Hispanic groups and most Senate supporters insist that any reform must lead to a pathway to citizenship.

Citizenship path

That approach faces great resistance. Some lawmakers demand that any move toward citizenship must come second to solving the border-security problem, at a minimum. For some, this is a political cover; under the Obama administration, resources for border security have been increased sharply, including the use of drones. And deportations of undocumented immigrants are at a record high.

A border-security trigger is realistic if it includes quantifiable goals, such as the number of new Border Patrol agents, the amount of resources allocated and the new technologies utilized. It isn’t reasonable if it requires meeting an amorphous standard such as “operational control” of a border that is always changing.

Hispanic groups assert that the real motive for such demands is to unreasonably stretch out any possibility of granting citizenship.
“There would be a backlash if citizenship is delayed for 15 or 20 years,” warns Gary Segura, a Stanford University professor and co-founder of Latino Decisions, a research organization on Hispanic public opinion.

— A fragile coalition: Equally contentious is the question of future flows of immigrants. One proposal would link the number of legal immigrants to economic conditions: more would be let in when times are good, fewer in tougher times. That sounds easier than it is. There will be clashes over how great a priority should be given to those with high-tech skills or to agricultural workers or to family reunification. Small businesses will rebel against any costly verification plan.

Most independent studies show that immigration is a decided economic plus, bringing in revenue and increasing productivity and innovation.

Yet the arguments of the populist right may resonate more as the debate heats up. NumbersUSA, a leading anti-immigration group, is reviving charges that immigration reform would drive down wages for middle- and low-income workers. Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who authored anti-immigration measures in several states and the Republican Party’s platform position on the issue last summer, charges taxpayers would be hit with $2.6 trillion in added food stamp, Medicare and Medicaid and welfare costs. That estimate is refuted by reliable studies; it still cuts.
House Republicans

— The ghost of Dennis Hastert: The former Republican speaker of the House decreed that any bill must command majority support among majority party members. Last month, House Speaker John Boehner waived the rule twice: To pass a measure avoiding the automatic spending cuts and tax increases known as the fiscal cliff and then for aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy.

The speaker, along with most party leaders, understands his party’s serious difficulties with Hispanic voters and fears making matters worse by blocking an overhaul. Two of the most virulent anti-immigration Republicans in the House, Lamar Smith of Texas and Steve King of Iowa, no longer hold important committee chairmanships.

Yet with anti-immigration sentiment still running high among many Republican rank-and-file voters, it’s tough to imagine a majority of the party’s House members backing a comprehensive bill, even if, as is certain, the Senate goes first. Boehner’s only option might be to let a bill pass primarily with Democratic votes.

To do that, he would need the support of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the whip, Kevin McCarthy; there’s no shrewder politician than McCarthy, who is always attuned to the party’s base. He’s also from California where, after Gov. Pete Wilson played the anti-immigration card in 1994, the Democrats completely dominate politics.

— Who is the Ted Kennedy or Rahm Emanuel? The successful, if flawed, passage of Obama’s health care measure probably wouldn’t have been possible without the savvy hand of former White House Chief of Staff Emanuel. Congressional Democrats and some outside advocates see no Emanuel counterpart in the current White House; privately, some say they would like the White House to enlist a special envoy — perhaps former Housing Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros or former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle — to shepherd the legislation.

There was no more capable legislator or deal-maker than the late Sen. Kennedy. Egos and tensions already are surfacing among supporters of reform; Republicans don’t trust the White House, and some Democrats worry that Marco Rubio, the ambitious young Republican senator from Florida, will look for a reason to peel off as he comes under pressure from his party’s right wing. There is no senator today who possesses Kennedy’s skill for navigating these shoals.

It’s still a slightly better bet that a big immigration bill will be enacted in this Congress. Getting there will be ugly, and the measure will seem to die more than once as it battles these cross pressures.

Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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