Come together, right now, over immigration reform

Like a door slamming shut, the conventional wisdom is hardening. The chances that Congress will take up comprehensive immigration reform this year are increasingly seen as poor to nil.

What killed the prospect, many think, was the Massachusetts special election to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Democrats and Republicans both heard the message: Voters are angry at Washington, and incumbents are at risk for their political lives.

And many lawmakers drew what seemed like the obvious conclusion: Don’t touch anything controversial between now and election day in November. Stick to the blandest diet possible, nothing but political comfort food.

And of course, immigration reform is anything but political comfort food.


But what if that wasn’t the message from Massachusetts? What if the real message was that voters want solutions; want Democrats and Republicans to stop bickering and start working together to solve problems?

If this was the message -- and I believe it was -- lawmakers need to think very differently about how to behave in the months ahead. And Democrats and Republicans ought to be looking hard for issues they can come together on.

This was never going to be an easy year for Congress to take up immigration reform. Yes, President Obama had promised it was on the agenda for 2010. And yes, a powerful new coalition of Latinos and immigrant-rights activists was demanding it get done. But stubborn unemployment made it hard to imagine passing any bill that appeared to help immigrant workers at the expense of citizens. And the ever-more-entrenched partisanship in Washington made it look all but impossible to find the votes.

After all, even with large Democratic majorities in Congress, in order to pass immigration reform, the president was going to need Republicans. Yet as 2009 became 2010, no more than a handful of Republicans had voted for any of the White House’s top proposals. The GOP was making hay on just saying no. And even if Democrats and Republicans could agree on how to fix immigration -- as some very liberal Democrats and very conservative Republicans had agreed on in the past -- the sour political climate seemed to doom any effort to cooperate.


But this is where the Massachusetts message comes in -- if anyone is listening.

A new approach won’t come easily to either party, now or next year when Republicans will no doubt have more seats in Congress. It’s far from clear that either Democrats or Republicans mean what they’ve been saying in recent weeks about working together. And of course, even if bipartisanship were to break out like spring fever, immigration isn’t likely to be the first issue the two sides tackle together.

Still, if the climate were to shift -- if the parties could come together on, say, jobs or the deficit, if they saw that voters approved and rewarded them for a new approach -- it might not seem so far-fetched to try cooperating on immigration.

The legislative process would have to work very differently than it has been working, or more often, not working. Democrats and Republicans would have to start the drafting process together, rather than one party proposing a fully baked bill and expecting the other to sign on submissively. Democrats would have to make it harder for the GOP to just say no, by building on provisions that Republican voters are in favor of -- including, in this case, tougher enforcement of immigration law. And lawmakers from both parties would have to find ways to tell voters something that sounds counterintuitive but that most economists support: Immigration actually creates jobs for Americans and will be crucial for the nation’s economic recovery.


A tall order? Yes. But not impossible. Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have been working for months in a genuinely consensual way to craft a balanced, bipartisan immigration reform bill. And far from dooming it, as many think, the Massachusetts election could start the thaw that creates space for a measure to move.

When might that happen? When will Democrats and Republicans decide to come together and govern from the center to solve the problems we face as a nation?

Whatever their views on immigration, that’s a question all Americans should want answered.

Tamar Jacoby is president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of employers advocating immigration reform.