Fred Barnes: Immigration Reform Is Starting to Roll

RNC Communications - April 24, 2013

It is rare in Washington for the trend lines on a controversial issue to come together as favorably as they have for immigration reform.

Public support is roughly around 70%, according to various polls, with Gallup having it at 72%. Senate Republicans blocked an overhaul of immigration laws in 2007 but now a substantial bloc of Republicans, alarmed by the GOP's shrunken share of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 election, are eager to enact "comprehensive" reform legislation.

For their part, Hispanic groups recognize that this is an opportune moment for achieving their goal of citizenship for illegal immigrants in America. They are willing to accept legislation with a protracted timetable—a minimum of 13 years—before citizenship can be attained.

Sen. Marco Rubio, flanked by Sens. Charles Schumer and John McCain, at the April 18 unveiling of the 'Gang of Eight' immigration-reform bill.

And two backers of immigration reform have emerged as key players since Congress took up the issue last week with hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee. One is President Obama. In February, the leak of a White House bill—including provisions that would be anathema to Republicans—threatened to upset the pro-reform coalition. Since then, the president has promised to stay out of the congressional deliberations.

The other is Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. His role is as critical as the president's, but for a different reason. Mr. Obama can stymie legislation, but Mr. Rubio's leadership is essential to passing immigration reform in the first place. This is why Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, longtime advocates of reform, recruited him and created the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" with four Republicans and four Democrats.

Mr. Rubio is "a game-changer," says Mr. Graham. "He brings a lot to the table," with solid conservative credentials and a large following among Republicans. Mr. Rubio is ambitious and often mentioned as a presidential candidate in 2016. But as a Cuban-American, he has motives that are more personal and ideological than purely political. This enhances his credibility.

Yet the favorable climate for changing the U.S. immigration system doesn't mean it's a cinch to pass. There are formidable opponents. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, probably the most underrated Republican on Capitol Hill, is already a dogged critic of the legislation drafted by the Gang of Eight. So is Ted Cruz of Texas, the smart and outspoken Senate freshman.

In the House, "it's going to be a lift," says Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a member of a bipartisan group developing a bill expected to be similar to the Gang of Eight's. "It's super-emotional and technically very difficult."

Outside of Capitol Hill, a large chunk of the conservative media are aligned against immigration reform. National Review insists that "a great deal" of the bill is "deeply objectionable."

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