Lots of important news out there today… but I’m going to stick on the immigration reform story for the moment. It’s a monumental story that is finally getting to the Senate floor and yet is being overshadowed in the news by the war, censure, and the general crisis of the Bush administration.
So I’m purposefully overcompensating here as the border reform issue really is coming to a head.
First off, please take a few minutes to check out my very latest piece on the issue — just out today in The Nation. It’s an up-close look at the politics of the debate and the deep divisions it has wrought inside the GOP. There’s also my policy piece published earier in the week on Truthdig.
Following this issue has been rather exhausting for me as it keeps shifting almost hour by hour. Just two days ago it seemed the five-year quest to get real reform on the agenda was on the verge of collapse inside the Senate Judiciary Committee.
And then on Thursday, sort of miraculously, the whole picture suddenly turned in a radical way. Press reports said that a majority emerged in the Judiciary Committee in favor of Ted Kennedy’s (and John McCain’s) proposals to provide the 12 million illegals living in the U.S. a path to residency and citizenship. There was also a consensus in favor of a guest worker program that would provide a channel for hundreds of thousands of immigrants to legally come here every year (serious analysts figure that the U.S. job market is absorbing about 1.5 million immigrants every year; a million legals and a half-million illegals).
Some immigration advocates suggested that Thursday’s apparent agreement was, indeed, a “turning point” toward approval of comprehensive reform.
As I said, both the substance and process of this issue can be excruciatingly complicated. I did, however, find one news story that best explained what’s going on. Below, I excerpt the relevant parts of Dallas Morning News correspondent Michelle Mittelstadt’s excellent sum-up:
WASHINGTON â€“ Pulling back from the brink of failure, senators on Thursday revived prospects for a comprehensive immigration overhaul with pending deals to legalize many of the nation’s 11 million-plus illegal immigrants and create a new guest worker program. Just a day earlier, it appeared that the Senate Judiciary Committee would fail to meet a deadline set by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and would see its half-completed package elbowed aside in favor of a far narrower border security bill the Tennessee Republican had waiting in the wings.
But the committee members rallied Thursday, for the first time tackling what Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called “the real enchilada”: the fate of millions of illegal immigrants, and how to address the flow of foreigners who will come here in the future in search of work.
A majority on the 18-member committee appear poised to approve a plan by Mr. Kennedy and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., providing “earned” legalization for illegal immigrants, after lawmakers return from next week’s congressional recess.
Under the plan, illegal immigrants who pay a $1,000 fine and pass a criminal background check could apply for a visa, good for six years, allowing them to work here legally and travel out of the country. They later could apply for legal permanent residence, and ultimately citizenship, if they pay an additional $1,000, show English and civics proficiency, and make good on all back taxes…
…Though the Judiciary Committee is moving toward a consensus, immigration overhaul still faces a rocky road in the Senate and an uncertain future beyond that. The House in December approved a tough enforcement-only bill with controversial measures such as building a 700-mile border fence and making it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally. Reconciling the dramatically different visions sketched by both chambers may prove impossible â€“ particularly in a congressional election year.
“We all know that this issue is so volatile that anything can happen,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which is pressing for a legalization program…
… Seventy-one House conservatives, led by Colorado Republican Tom Tancredo, warned that the Senate Judiciary Committee legislation “would doom any chance of a real reform bill reaching the president’s desk this year…”
Personally, I remain pessimistic — at least in the short term. We’re too close to the mid-term elections for a significant portion of Republicans to challenge their own anti-immigrant base. The most likely outcome of this process, this year, is a deadlock — no reconcilitation between a possibly sensible Senate bill and the draconian (and useless) close-the-border measure passed last December by the House.
But this has to be viewed as a long-term football game– one that might play out for another two or three years. Without doubt the ball got advanced yesterday. What’s crucial about Thursday’s action in the Judiciary Committee is that for the first time since 1986, there’s an acknowledgement that something rational and practical must be done to legalize the millions of undocumented already working here. As well as those who will inevitably be showing up in the years to come. That this acknowledgement comes from a Republican-dominated committee makes it even more significant. The tide may be finally, if slowly, shifting.