Just a few weeks ago, a State of the Union call for immigration reform would have seemed an exercise in futility. But now, President Obama, who Tuesday night will urge the House to pass new legislation, might have at least an outside chance of getting what he wants.
Immigration reform is back. Left for dead countless times in recent months, the effort to overhaul the nation's immigration system -- and deal with the estimated 12 million immigrants now in the country illegally -- is again on the priority list for Speaker John Boehner and House GOP lawmakers.
But there's a problem, and it's the same problem that always snags immigration talks: How to structure a system that will both beef up the nation's border security and legalize those here illegally.
Many Republicans who might be open to some sort of reform will not accept legalization until security measures are not only passed but in place and working. Many Democrats will not accept anything less than immediate legalization. They will accept heightened security measures, but not as a condition for legalization.
It's a seemingly intractable dilemma that some House Republicans believe they can resolve with a series of provisions to enact security measures at essentially the same time as legalization, with requirements that specific security benchmarks be met at agreed-upon intervals after passage. "We're looking for a happy medium where they both [security and legalization] have to move along together in a way for both sides to get what they want," said a House GOP aide closely involved in the issue.
Pro-legalization Republicans talk of devising a schedule in which illegal immigrants would be required to come forward and register, and perhaps accept some sort of probation, as the first step of the legalization process. At the same time, new security measures would be undertaken. But that is effectively instant legalization — precisely what many Republicans will not accept. Asked what would happen if the GOP demanded that legalization be in place before anything else, the aide's reply was short and simple: "I don't think you can do that."
It's the same issue that bedeviled the Senate in its consideration of the Gang of Eight bill. In the end, Senate Republicans voted against that legislation by a better than two-to-one margin — although the total of 14 Republican "yes" votes was more than enough for passage when combined with the Senate's 54 Democrats, who voted for the bill unanimously.
Boehner has long ago declared the Gang bill dead on arrival in the House, and a bipartisan House effort to come up with its own comprehensive bill failed as well. But now, Boehner promises the GOP will soon produce a set of "principles," a one-page list of immigration reform goals on which most Republicans agree.
Boehner will present the principles to the House GOP membership at its annual retreat this weekend in Cambridge, Maryland. But insiders say the principles are nowhere near a concrete proposal. "It's not like he's saying, 'Hey, we have a plan, we're trying to get everybody to adopt it," says a well-connected GOP strategist. "It's more along the lines of, 'Here are some options, is there any consensus around them?' "
Republican rank-and-file members already know their leadership favors the full or partial legalization of currently-illegal immigrants. "The principles aren't written yet, but in my personal belief, I think it'll go with legal status that will allow [illegal immigrants] to work and pay taxes," said GOP number-three Rep. Kevin McCarthy last week.
Still, House Republicans are likely to remain deeply divided over legalization. And their divisions simply reflect larger divisions within the conservative world.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page is solidly pro-reform. National Review is solidly against it. The Weekly Standard is split, with editor William Kristol advising Republicans "don't even try" to pass reform this year, and executive editor Fred Barnes praising McCarthy's decision to support legalization as a blow against the "nativist axis" and a "brave step for his party and America."
A fight is coming. Perhaps the only people not fully engaged might be the broad majority of Americans, who don't see any urgent need for reform. In a new survey from Pew, in which voters were asked what should be the top priority for the president and Congress, immigration reform ranked 16th out of 20. In a new poll from Gallup, just three percent named immigration as the nation's most pressing issue.
After a look at those numbers, lawmakers might reasonably conclude it's time to move on to something else. But don't look for Washington to take the voters' hint.