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Strange bedfellows in Washington

Obama's push to fix the US immigration system is receiving a little help from his usual political enemies.
Last modified: 9 Feb 2013 12:54

President Barack Obama has made a renewed public push to fix the country's broken immigration system, and this time it appears he's getting a little help from his usual political enemies in Washington.

In Washington, immigration reform is pretty much what everyone is talking about. Of all the tough issues Obama plans to tackle in his second term – among them economic recovery, gun control, climate change – there's a glimmer of hope that immigration reform could actually happen.

In a much publicised move, prominent senate Republicans have teamed up with Democrats to endorse the broad principles of just such a deal, among them Senator Marco Rubio, a rising star of the Republican Party and a Tea Party favourite.

Rubio went on the Rush Limbaugh radio show last month to defend the bipartisan approach. Limbaugh, a fierce critic of the president, has derided any plan for a pathway to legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants as "blanket amnesty".

Regardless, the conservative shock jock told Rubio that what he as doing was "admirable and noteworthy".

Pause to assumptions

A few more examples to give pause to the knee-jerk assumptions on the Republican Party’s position on immigration reform: the religious right, spearheaded by groups like the Faith and Freedom Coalition, has - for the first time - supportively weighed in on the issue; the Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business lobby that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to defeat Obama and Democrats in elections, is negotiating with the AFL-CIO (the country's largest federation of trade unions) on the contours of a possible deal; and Republican donors have even formed a Super PAC to contain the political damage caused by the anti-immigrant rhetoric that often bubbles up along the fringes of their party.

For the millions of people who are sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants in this country, these are hopeful signs.

A recent national poll suggests that a majority of Americans (55 percent) support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But it also raises the question: Why are these groups, seemingly opposed to everything Obama does, using their political capital to push the party forward on this issue?

Immediate political necessity may be the answer.

Hispanic voters supported President Obama by a margin of three to one in last year’s election. Republican challenger Mitt Romney managed 27 percent of Hispanic vote, less than John McCain in 2008 and far less that George W Bush's 40 percent in 2004.

It seems if Republicans have any intention of winning a national election any time soon, they'll need to reach the fastest-growing demographic group in the country.

Major reform push

Now suspend the hope for a moment and recall the last time there was a major political push to reform the system.

In 2006, George Bush tried and failed, his plan ultimately derailed by members of his own party. There were pro-immigrant rights marches across major US cities, but there was also a groundswell among voters opposed to a legal pathway for undocumented immigrants.

House Republicans responded by pushing for enforcement bills that pleased their base, but which alienated pro-reform advocates.

Comprehensive immigration reform died in the congress. But this time, President Obama may have laid the groundwork.

Can he outmanoeuvre his opponents?

Beyond the speeches and the deferred action initiative (which gives the children of undocumented immigrants the opportunity to apply for work authorisation), Obama's record is anything but friendly to undocumented immigrants.

Republicans wanted him to secure the border. His administration has spent around $18bn on enforcement in the last year alone.

The number of border agents has doubled since 2004 – a build-up that began under Bush and which he has continued. The Department of Homeland Security has deported 1.6 million people in the last four years – at a record pace.

Obama has also benefited from demographic shifts south of the border.

Pathway to citizenship

According to an April report by the Pew Hispanic Center, more Mexicans may be leaving the US than are actually coming in.

That's a result of enforcement on the US side, but also economic factors that are giving Mexicans more opportunities at home.

These facts could dull the main argument of anti-immigrant advocates: that no comprehensive reform can take place until "the border is secured".

Let's be clear: none of the overtures made by previous critics of reform, nor the statistics promise that a bill will pass, nor that the discussion won't descend into another political brawl if the debate continues into mid-term elections two years from now.

The president and the senate have each presented their vision of a pathway to citizenship.

Republicans in the House are largely opposed to any talk of citizenship, but have recently indicated they are willing to consider an approach that provides legal residency.

The rhetoric on illegal immigrants is shifting, but it's too early to tell whether the policy will too.

But in Washington politics make strange bedfellows, and if the positive buzz surrounding the reform efforts is any indication, the cliché won't die anytime soon.

Here's hoping neither will the efforts to fix the broken system – a point on which all sides are so far willing to agree.