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Don't let the border crisis go to waste

Democrats want immigration reform, and Republicans need it. Could this be the moment?

July 16, 2014 6:00AM ET

On its face, the Southwest border crisis makes comprehensive reform of the United States’ broken immigration system seem more hopeless than ever. As a result of the minors streaming in from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the debate is now focused on border control while a broader overhaul bill languishes in the House.

Though there is no dramatic surge overall in undocumented immigrants, the surge of children puts an intense spotlight on the border and fuels the impression that we can’t control it. If we needed more evidence of the dire need for reform, the undocumented Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist-turned-activist Jose Antonio Vargas was detained Tuesday as he tried to leave the border town of McAllen, Texas, on a Philippine passport. He was released after hours in custody.

The mounting crisis at the border makes President Barack Obama newly vulnerable in what amounts to yet another test of his ability to handle a thorny and divisive issue, with only one-third of respondents in a new ABC/Washington Post poll approving so far. He’s facing substantive logistical questions: How to care for the children? How to pay for that care? Should he push to change a law that restricts U.S. options? There are tough political questions as well: Did he miss the developing crisis, despite a warning from Texas Gov. Rick Perry two years ago? Should he have visited Texas at the border with Mexico last week for what he dismissed as a photo op? Would that have inflamed the conflict over whether to deport the children or take more measured steps that could lead to asylum for some? Could it have sent an unintentionally welcoming message to Central American parents weighing whether to send their children north?

The children are guaranteed immigration hearings under a 2008 law that President George W. Bush signed with the intent of fighting the child sex trade. If Obama supports a legal change that would allow Border Patrol agents to quickly send them home to countries ravaged by gangs, violence and chaos (and it sounds as though he does), he risks alienating Latinos from him and his party. If he and other Democrats support a more humanitarian approach, the fusillades from the right will only intensify.

Republicans certainly are capitalizing on their new political opportunities, from blaming Obama and his policies for the problem (mostly false, according to PolitiFact) to balking at his request for $3.7 billion to deal with it. In part that’s because some of the money would go to the Department of Health and Human Services to care for the minors while they await their hearings. Beyond that, they say they don’t trust him.

But it’s not all blue skies for the GOP. Only 23 percent of respondents in the ABC/Washington Post poll approved of how Republicans are handling the border situation — even worse than Obama’s rating. Simply saying no to the money would reinforce the image of a party that is not interested in solutions. And the debate over what to do about the children is highlighting fissures between hard-liners and those who want reform, as well as the perception that the GOP is hostile to immigrants. Six in 10 registered Latino voters in a recent Latino Decisions poll, for instance, said they would be more open to Republicans if they supported immigration reform. Half said they would blame the GOP if there is no reform this year, compared with 15 percent who said they would blame the Democrats. 

There is a fatalism in the political class about immigration reform — but achieving it this year is not 100 percent impossible.

Furthermore, anti-reform conservatives are out of step with the country on immigration. A new poll sponsored by three pro-reform business groups, in line with other surveys, found that 80 percent of responding voters wanted Congress to act this year on reform; 2 out of 3, including a majority of Republicans, supported legal status for undocumented immigrants; and 72 percent (and two-thirds of Republicans) rejected the GOP argument that Obama’s unwillingness to enforce laws is a reason not to act.

One last question for Republicans: Do they want this debate to tear their party apart during the 2016 presidential campaign, which for all practical purposes begins in a few months? Look at the potential field. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas might relish the prospect of an immigration debate next year on the Senate floor, because his hard-line views align with a big chunk of the GOP primary electorate’s. But what of prospects with more calibrated views, such as Perry, Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey?

If past is prologue, the coming clash will not warm the hearts of Latino voters, most of whom know or are related to someone without documents. The 2008 race featured a sustained battle between Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani over who was the worse coddler of undocumented immigrants. Sen. John McCain said maybe Romney could use his “small-varmint gun” to “drive those Guatemalans off his lawn” — a double play referring to a report that Romney’s lawn service used undocumented immigrants and to Romney’s dubious pronouncement that he was a “lifelong hunter” of “small varmints, if you will.”

McCain, the eventual nominee, was a passionate supporter of comprehensive reform that included a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented people in the United States. Yet exit polls showed he won only 31 percent of the Latino vote.

Things went from bad to worse in 2012. Perry came under attack in a debate for signing a state Dream Act allowing in-state tuition for young people brought into the United States without papers when they were children. “I don’t think you have a heart” if you oppose that policy, he told his fellow Republicans onstage. Romney, the eventual nominee, supported “self-deportation” — that is, making life miserable for people so they will leave. He ended up with 27 percent of the Latino vote. Given the fast-growing Latino population, that trend line is a political disaster.

There is a fatalism in the political class about immigration reform, fueled by Obama’s saying House Speaker John Boehner told him it was not going anywhere. But strategists for both sides have told me that achieving it this year is not 100 percent impossible — if Democrats press for more than damage control at the border and if there is a conversation between Obama and Republicans. The outlines of a compromise are clear: Beefed-up border protection, security benchmarks to be met and a path to earned legal status for most of those who can prove they have been here since a specified date.

It is, admittedly, the longest of long shots. “There are a lot of moving pieces in an environment that has not been particularly kind to having a lot of moving pieces,” as one wry GOP strategist put it. But Republicans concerned about the future of their party might want to consider borrowing a patented Obama White House tactic. They were enraged when the new administration fulfilled several 2008 campaign promises, such as investments in green energy and electronic medical records, by making them part of the stimulus package meant to cushion the Great Recession. The theory was that no crisis should go to waste. Neither side should let this border crisis go to waste. 

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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