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What it will take to get the GOP on board with immigration reform

Many obstacles remain, but the ingredients for an immigration deal are there

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

8:00 AM EDT, July 7, 2013

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Attempting to narrow America's immigration debate down to an easily understood set of issues is no easy task. But that's why The Sun pays me the big bucks. So, with no further caveats, I offer comprehensive immigration reform in 800 words, more or less.

•The politics: Not too complicated here: It has become a post-Romney article of faith in GOP circles that the lopsided margin for the president among Hispanic (71 percent-27 percent) and Asian voters (73 percent-26 percent) was the result of perceived GOP indifference (and/or opposition) to passing an immigration bill. Whether this public perception is fact based is almost beside the point; most GOPers understand that demographic trends necessitate better Republican performance in these growing voting blocks. And it's clear how good the Democrats have become at demagoguing the "anti-immigrant party." Major GOP Hispanic leaders (Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez) help, but a substantive fix of a terribly broken system is required.

•The border: Repairing a broken border is a threshold issue for Republicans but far less of an issue for Democrats. (Recall President Barack Obama making light during the campaign of the GOP's alleged plans for a moat at the Mexico border.) Most Republicans have been screaming for increased border security since 9/11. Most Democrats have been offering increasingly attractive incentives (welfare benefits, drivers licenses, voting rights) to immigrants in the country illegally over the same period of time. And Democrats have won the last two national elections.

It sure seems like a long time ago when my former House colleague, Rep. Sonny Bono, famously stated during a U.S. Senate debate, "When something is illegal, it's illegal. Enforce the law." (The year was 1992). But we have failed to enforce the law at our southern border. And a more progressive culture has not been overly impressed with Republican calls to strengthen border defenses over the past 20 years.

This one, however, remains the issue for conservatives, particularly the conservative media. Republicans in Congress will require serious, objective measures of border enforcement as a price of their support on final passage. And it will be Senator Rubio who will continue to play the role of conservative opinion leader (and deal maker) on this fundamental issue.

•The price they will pay: Fortunately, most folks have abandoned the idea of a mass deportation. Which begs the next key question for lawmakers: How many tests/evaluations will the heretofore undocumented be required to pass before the new law will deem them "legal"?

There appears to be general agreement around the plank(s) of clean criminal background checks (no felonies) and payment of a fine ($500-$1,000). But much controversy continues to surround hot button issues such as access to welfare benefits and tax credits, (proof of) payment of back taxes, and the carrying of a biometric card to record exit and entry into the country.

These, then, are the primary hurdles previously undocumented workers will be required to jump through in order to gain legal presence. But once the hurdles are negotiated, what then?

Well, a "registered provisional immigrant status," so long as the foregoing requirements are met. Then, after some period of time (10 years in the Senate bill), immigrants could seek a green card and lawful permanent legal status — if taxes are paid, another fine is paid, they have maintained continuous presence in the U.S., and have learned English.

•Work visas and the tech economy: It is a sad fact of life that American higher education fails to produce the engineers needed to fuel our new knowledge economy. Hence, the H-1B visa growth industry, a mini-tech immigration service that provides technology workers (primarily engineers) with temporary work permits in the U.S. The Senate reform bill would increase the annual cap on such visas from 65,000 to 110,000 and possibly up to 180,000 depending on domestic demand and the U.S. unemployment level.

The issues here are two-fold: (1.) What is the appropriate number of such visas needed to feed the American economy?; and (2.) Are some firms taking advantage of these foreign workers (primarily from India) by placing them in lower wage corporate positions?

Although critics of the program argue that these workers take jobs from Americans, this issue is not particularly partisan or philosophical. But it is venue driven. Members (particularly in the House) are sensitive to the constituent needs of their districts. Hence, the presence of growth orientated high technology firms in members' districts makes Republicans and Democrats favorably inclined toward expanding this program.

The Senate's passage of its reform bill signaled the end of Round One. Round Two will play out in the House, where provisions regarding border security and a path to citizenship will be beefed up. And Speaker John Boehner has promised that only a bill enjoying majority GOP support will be brought to the floor.

It's not yet half-time, but a long overdue immigration fix is in sight.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.