Act, Already!

Mark McKinnon: Do Democrats & Republicans Really Want Immigration Reform?

The proposed Achieve Act is a start toward moving beyond posturing and Band-Aids, says Mark McKinnon.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

A competition of the best ideas—that should be what Congress is about. And that is why I welcome the immigration reform bill introduced this week by Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Jon Kyl, of border states Texas and Arizona.

Though both are retiring, and the legislation is likely to be stalled in the lame-duck session of Congress focused on the critical fiscal cliff negotiations, Hutchison and Kyl are laying the groundwork for the discussion we must finally finish.

This debate is about more than just legality. It’s also about reality. And morality. Especially for the children of illegal immigrants who know no other country than ours as home.

Immigration reform almost happened under President George W. Bush. Twice. And it was comprehensive.

In 2005, Sens. Edward Kennedy and John McCain sponsored bipartisan legislation that improved border security, created a guest-worker program, and provided a pathway to citizenship for the millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. The bill was carefully stewarded through the Senate, where it was almost scuttled over union objections to the guest-worker program. It did, however, pass before it was rejected by a Republican-controlled House.

The bill was brought forward again in 2007, again with bipartisan sponsorship—this time, the “Gang of 12,” including Kennedy and McCain—and with the support of President Bush, but to a Democrat-controlled House and Senate. It died in the Senate, following strong grassroots opposition labeling the legislation “amnesty” and demanding the border be secured first.

Interestingly, while the 2005 and 2007 bills had critics on both sides of the aisle, a young junior senator from Illinois apparently added to the gridlock.

And so, the debate continued through 2007 and 2008, becoming entangled in the politics of the presidential election. Positions were staked out, no progress was made, but both presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, pledged to make immigration reform a top priority.

Obama won. And, nothing.

Though Democrats controlled the White House, Senate, and House for two years following Obama’s victory, it was not until the lame-duck session of Congress in December of 2010 that the DREAM Act, offering legal status for undocumented students, was offered for a vote. Narrowly approved in the House, it fell short in the Senate.

Another one and a half years passed … bubkes from Obama.

Stupid talk during Republican primary debates—Perry was right about offering in-state tuition to children of immigrants, Romney was wrong to attack him for it. And nuts for suggesting the notion of “self-deportation” for immigrants illegally in the country. Not surprisingly, Romney paid a big political price with Hispanics, arguably costing him the election.

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Then, just months prior to Election Day 2012, Obama signed an executive order permitting young illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation. The timing would suggest the decision may have been driven more by political necessity than by conviction. But, no matter. It was the right thing to do. And very smart politics.

And the measure was little more than a pretty Band-Aid. The president was challenged at a forum sponsored by Univision in September by host Jorge Ramos on his failure to address immigration reform: “You promised. And a promise is a promise. With all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.”

Do Democrats really want immigration reform? Does the president? Or is it too valuable to use as a bludgeon against Republicans?

Do Republicans really want immigration reform? It’s a demographic necessity, but do they really understand the moral cost of not acting?

The Achieve Act, offering legal standing but not citizenship for young illegal immigrants brought to this country by their parents, as proposed by Hutchison and Kyl is not perfect, because it is not enough. But it is a start.