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Getting to yes on immigration reform

The sweeping immigration bill outlined by a bipartisan group of eight senators this week represents the most comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. immigration system in more than a quarter-century. It's also probably Congress' best chance this year to forge a compromise on an issue it hasn't touched since 2007. But that doesn't mean lawmakers still won't find a way to flub it.

In theory, at least, the Senate compromise bill contains elements of policies both parties say they favor. In its broadest outlines, it would provide a path to eventual citizenship for the estimated 11 million people who are already in the country illegally, which Democrats have long wanted. At the same time, it would force the government to spend some $5 billion beefing up border security over the next decade, while creating a new visa system for guest workers, steps that Republicans have insisted must be part of any comprehensive reform. It would also crack down on businesses that hire illegal workers.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised a vote on the bill later this year, and there's a good chance he can peel off enough Senate Republicans not only to pass the measure but to make it a truly bipartisan effort. Given that four GOP senators have already signed on to the compromise — Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona — it's likely at least a few more moderate Senate Republicans eventually will be persuaded to join them.

A strong showing of bipartisan support in the Senate would put pressure on Republican leaders in the House, where a similar bipartisan compromise is quietly taking shape, to get serious about coming up with its own immigration overhaul. Presumably, the two chambers could then work out their differences and present President Barack Obama, who so far has delayed presenting his immigration reform plan, with a bill for his signature.

But unless the right wing that dominates the House Republican caucus can get over what has been its intransigent attitude toward anything that smacks of a compromise on immigration — particularly Democrats' insistence on creating a path to citizenship for people who have been living here illegally for decades — the reform effort isn't going anywhere this year. If that happens, the onus for the failure will fall squarely on the GOP.

That's bound to hurt the party with Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, who voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in the last election cycle, and it will only raise further questions about whether a party that rarely saw a compromise it didn't dislike — on taxes, the budget, you name it — is really serious about governing.

There are indications that at least some Republican lawmakers are beginning to recognize the box the party has put itself in, at least on immigration issues. Even a tea party conservative like Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has recently softened his tone against a more liberal immigration policy, though his talk of "legalizing" immigrants' presence still stops well short of offering them citizenship. Meanwhile, some evangelical Christian groups are creating some breathing space for fence-sitting GOP lawmakers by urging them to approach immigration issues with the "compassion for the stranger" shown in the Bible.

It's long been a tenet of the Republican Party to oppose immigration reform as an "amnesty" that rewards people for breaking our laws. Never mind that there's no way we're ever going to deport 11 million people. But the GOP's attitude seems to have been that if we can't do that, let's at least make them as miserable as possible.

If even a conservative like Senator Paul has come to realize the self-defeating consequences of such thinking, perhaps there's hope for his counterparts in the House as well. A party that can only deal with how it wishes the world were, rather than how it actually is, is a poor candidate to lead the nation on immigration — or on anything else.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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