Immigration Reform Back On Track–For the Moment

Well, it only took five-and-a-half years to get another shot at comprehensive immigration reform after the Senate, in one of those maneuvers genuine filibuster reform might eliminate, killed a motion to proceed to a vote on the McCain-Kennedy legislation. What happened, of course, was a revolt by conservatives against “amnesty” that eventually forced John McCain to repudiate his own legislative handiwork as part of the price he had to pay to become the Republican president nominee in 2008. This same revolt helped kill the 2012 presidential campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and helped convince Mitt Romney to make a virtue of his unusually right-wing record on the subject.

In the exceptionally shallow self-examination Republicans are conducting after their 2012 defeat, immigration policy is the one substantive topic where actual change is in the air, thanks to the demographic reality of a burgeoning Latino vote reinforced by the impatience of a pro-immigration business lobby. And so it was no huge surprise when a bipartisan group of eight senators (Democrats Bennet, Durbin, Menendez and Schumer, and Republicans Flake, Graham, McCain and Rubio) revealed an agreement on “principles” for comprehensive immigration reform, to be formally unveiled today, as reported by the New York Times‘ Julia Preston:

Under the senators’ plan, most illegal immigrants would be able to apply to become permanent residents — a crucial first step toward citizenship — but only after certain border enforcement measures had been accomplished.

Among the plan’s new proposals is the creation of a commission of governors, law enforcement officials and community leaders from border states that would assess when border security measures had been completed. A proposal would also require that an exit system be in place for tracking departures of foreigners who entered the country through airports or seaports, before any illegal immigrants could start on a path to citizenship.

The lawmakers intend for their proposals to frame the debate in the Senate, which is expected to take up immigration this spring, ahead of the House of Representatives.

This framework reflects the default-drive Republican insistence on “enforcement first” but concedes the “amnesty” principle that is fundamental for conservative nativists.

The timing of this agreement is no accident. The president will release his own comprehensive immigration reform proposal in a speech tomorrow in Las Vegas. It will be interesting to see whether he takes the opportunity to praise or push the Senate group. And the reaction to watch is among House conservatives. They could take this occasion to demand reinstatement of the Hastert Rule requiring that a majority of the GOP Caucus be on board any major legislation before it’s allowed to go to the floor. And the velocity and ferocity of nativist reaction will provide an early read on whether Marco Rubio has a shot at retaining significant movement-conservative support if he decides to run for president in 2016.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.