Why I Think 2014 is the Year We Get Immigration Reform

2014 February 2.

One year ago I was spending much of my time on airplanes, in airports and in meeting rooms on Capitol Hill as I was shuttling back-and-forth between California and Washington, D.C., to be part of concluding negotiations on an immigration reform deal.

The effort was well worth it and resulted in a comprehensive bill that was passed by the Senate with a bipartisan supermajority last June.  Unfortunately, the House of Representatives never took up that legislation (S. 744) although House committees did pass five separate bills each addressing different “pieces” of immigration reform.  One bill addressed agriculture, but did not provide a solution concerning the existing workforce already living and working in this country.  None of these bills were ultimately advanced to the House floor for a vote.

However, if the House passes bills before the end of 2014, a compromise could be reached with the Senate and legislation might just reach the President’s desk.  So, let’s make a deal in 2014.

Yes, I know this is an election year and primary elections do cause some Republicans to ramp up the conservative rhetoric and some Democrats to lean farther to the left.  But there are several developments that give me optimism that agriculture will get a new guest worker program and a way to maintain our current workers for the near future.  There’s much lively debate going on and that’s one positive sign.  The window of opportunity is most likely to open after the major primaries in spring and before the August recess.

Speaker Boehner made a positive step recently.  He hired an immigration policy advisor in December, Rebecca Tallent.  She is Senator John McCain’s former chief-of-staff and the former director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.  She has been working on this issue for a long time.  She knows the players and knows the policy.  Her hiring has been regarded as a solid indication that immigration reform is not dead.  I have worked with her before and spoke with her a few weeks ago and I can say she also understands what is at stake for our industry should this issue get kicked down the road for yet another year.  It will be our job to help get a bill, or bills, through the House and into conference with the Senate.  Politically, Boehner should have space to operate now that budget negotiations are out of the way for the year.

I think most Republicans want to get something done on immigration and so do most voters.  Multiple polls confirm that Republican primary voters think fixing immigration is “very important.”  A number of Senate Republicans voted for S. 744 and are still committed.  In the 2012 election, the party did worse among Hispanic voters than in previous elections, and failing to enact sensible immigration reform will not help their prospects going forward.  Almost everyone agrees the immigration system is broken so a change in policy is definitely needed.  I think good policy is good politics and I’ve heard Republican members of Congress say this, as well.  Republicans shouldn’t fear giving Obama a victory on immigration.  Why be against something the country wants and needs just because your opponent may claim credit?  The question will be how far Republicans are willing to go to work with the other party and the White House.

It will also be important to see how far Democrats will be willing to go and how the president engages.  House Democrats have a big role to play and can’t draw a line in the sand about supporting reform only if a pathway to citizenship is guaranteed.  That would be a recipe for killing any hope for reform legislation this year.  Speaker Boehner needs 218 votes to pass a bill(s) out of the House and that will most likely require votes from Democrats.  The pieces of legislation will have to get to the Senate, be voted on and go into conference because that’s where the real negotiations will take place on the issue of citizenship.  Both parties need to save some face and make concessions so the issue isn’t used against candidates in November, and that means mutual compromise.

The current immigration system doesn’t work for national security or the economy or for American justice.  Millions of reformers in the evangelical and Catholic communities are not giving up.  The hi-tech community is not giving up.  Hispanics aren’t giving up.  Ag is not giving up.  Doing nothing is not an option and more of our leaders finally understand that.  So reserve your tickets now; the circus in D.C. opens soon.