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When Congress last debated immigration reform, in 2007, the bill died on the Senate floor. Some Democrats, backed by unions, were worried that the wages of U.S. citizens would be undercut by a plan in the bill to bring in hundreds of thousands of immigrants as guest workers. On the Republican side, anti-immigration activists deluged lawmakers with so many calls that they reportedly crashed the congressional phone system.
Now Washington is going to try again. This week the White House and a bipartisan group of senators announced plans to push a comprehensive immigration reform package through Congress before summer. Here are six reasons why things look a lot better now than they did in 2007:
1. The GOP desperately wants immigration reform
Since the presidential election, a host of party leaders and conservative pundits have come forward—Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Grover Norquist, Senator Marco Rubio, House Speaker John Boehner, and the Romney campaign’s Hispanic outreach director—to warn if the party doesn’t do something to appeal to immigrants, it will be doomed to permanent minority status. Leading the charge isn’t John McCain, the top Republican behind the failed 2007 bill, but Marco Rubio, who represents the party’s future. Most interesting to follow will be the trickle-down effect these statements have on lower-ranking lawmakers, particularly in the more conservative House. When Rubio drew a red line this week—no immigration reform without first securing the border—he was sending a “Relax, it’s going to be OK” message to this element of the party.
2. Republicans will put money behind the effort
Charlie Spies, who was counsel to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, has started a new super PAC aimed at backing pro-immigration candidates (and perhaps attacking some of the anti-immigrant ones). Spies told me his goal was to help Republican candidates fend off threats of primary challenges if they support an immigration bill. “We want members to know there are resources that will be available to them if they support a broad-based approach to reform,” he said.
3. Unions are on the same page
In 2007, there was a split in the union movement. SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, supported the Senate’s immigration bill. The AFL-CIO opposed it. One big source of frustration for the AFL were the bill’s guest worker programs, which they believed would undercut U.S. citizens’ wages unless the guest workers were themselves allowed to unionize. The AFL also represents the Customs and Border Patrol workers, which hasn’t been friendly to immigration reform. Five years later, both major unions say they will support a comprehensive immigration reform package. Still, expect the guest worker fight to erupt again as the new Senate bill takes shape.
4. The Obama administration has quietly made moves to appease unions
The government distributes 65,000 visas to high-skilled immigrants each year. The demand far outpaces the supply: Last year companies submitted 374,000 applications for those 65,000 slots. To get the visas, companies must submit an application to the U.S. Department of Labor, certifying, among other things, that they weren’t able to find a U.S. worker who was qualified to do that job. Unions think the certification process is bogus, because it’s easy to get around (they’re right). Last July, the administration quietly advanced a regulation that would raise the burden of proof for those applications. Of course, the White House will need to do a lot more than this to appease organized labor, but it’s a start.
5. Immigrants help the economy
With one notable exception, most economists now believe the effect of immigrants on the economy is a small net positive. For everyone except those without high school diplomas, immigrants increase overall wages and the pool of jobs. This argument is in the ascendancy among economists because there’s more research backing it than there was in 2007. And as Ezra Klein points out in a Bloomberg View column this week, a legalized pool of immigrants are likely to be revenue-generators for the government. When the Congressional Budget Office analyzed the issue in 2007, Klein says “it found that legalizing undocumented immigrants would increase federal revenue by $48 billion while costing only $23 billion in increased public services.”
6. Illegal immigrants are no longer flooding the border
Net migration from Mexico came to a standstill last year. In 2007, by contrast, immigration from Mexico was at its peak. Today, politicians in both parties agree that the border is more secure than it ever (though Republicans, including Rubio, think more needs to be done). The border is sure to be an issue in the coming immigration debate. But the difference is that fewer Americans are actually panicked about it, and fewer politicians can reasonably claim it’s a problem.