A Political Roadmap for Immigration Reform

Published on: 12:03PM Jun 10, 2013

A look at the politics of the Senate bill, which is scheduled for a floor debate beginning this week.

Erich Straub   CopyBy Erich C. Straub, attorney

Editor's note: This is the second installment of a two-part column on immigration reform. Part I can be found here.

Previously, I examined the basics of the Senate Bill 744 as it relates to the dairy industry. In this piece, I will examine the politics of the bill, which has been voted out of committee and is scheduled for a floor debate beginning this week. Senate Majority Harry Reid has stated that he expects a vote on the bill prior to the July 4 recess. If approved by the Senate, the bill would then proceed to the House, which is already busy with its own version of an immigration reform bill.

The Drama v. the Reality

It is important to remember that Congress is very much theater: Each member is trying to make policy while also playing to an audience of voters back home. ,Add a 24-hour news cycle, and immigration reform may simultaneously seem on the verge of victory or defeat at any given moment. So take a deep breath, and focus on these political factors:

1. The Republicans need immigration reform now. They need it more than the Democrats do. Without it, the party simply will not be viable in presidential elections. Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the electorate. An anti-immigration reform policy by the last two Republican presidential candidates has alienated Latino voters and driven higher and higher percentages of Latinos to vote for Democrats. Quite simply, the Republicans are in a box and immigration reform is the only way out.

2. Immigration reform will not be an effective wedge issue for Democrats in 2014. Historically, the party in the White House loses congressional seats in a mid-term election. This effect is usually enhanced during a president’s second term, which is often dominated by administration "scandals" in the media. The Obama administration has already fallen into this trap. The gerrymandering of congressional districts further favors the incumbent candidate. Many of the incumbents who are most opposed to Senate Bill 744 are also the safest on the immigration issue in 2014. Given these trends, it is exceedingly unlikely that Democrats will gain seats in 2014, no matter what issue. Democrats cannot afford to implement an immigration strategy of waiting until 2016: another four years is an eternity in modern politics.

3. Potential Republican presidential candidates are the barometer. The press has gravitated to statements by staunch reform opponents such as Senator Jeff Sessions and Congressman Steve King. These two and others like them have very little to lose politically and can afford to make the most inflammatory statements and legislative proposals. Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul and Congressman Paul Ryan are much better barometers of where the debate is in the Republican Party. Why? Because all three of them will likely be competing for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016 and have a tremendous amount to lose politically if immigration reform fails again.

Advice for the Reform Weary

Given that immigration reform is so crucial for dairy, it can be almost maddening to watch the back and forth of the process. A wise person once said that legislation is like sausage, and sometimes it is best not to watch the sausage being made. My advice: Do not focus too closely on any one statement or vote by a particular politician.

A perfect example occurred last week when Marco Rubio announced that tougher border security measures would be needed to pass Senate Bill 744, even though he is a member of the "Gang of Eight" who drafted the bill. Rubio’s announcement set off alarm in the pro-reform coalition, particularly when he admitted talking to staunch reform opponent Senator John Cornyn. By the end of the week, Rubio had quelled these fears by reiterating his support for S.B.744 and indicating that he was drafting border security changes independent from Cornyn.

Paul Ryan had a similar moment when he voted with a majority in the House to defund Obama’s deferred action program. Upon closer examination, the House measure has no chance of becoming law and may simply be a measure to provide political cover for the much tougher immigration vote to come.

Rubio, Ryan and others have a fine line to walk: preserving their "conservative" credentials with the rank and file while still carving out a future for themselves and their party. I believe immigration reform is alive, well and picking up momentum. I believe there will be a bill on the President’s desk by September, and it will be a good one for dairy. Until then, we will just have to put up with watching the sausage being made.

Erich C. Straub is an immigration lawyer who practices in Wisconsin and is listed in The Best Lawyers in America, SuperLawyers, and U.S. News and World Report’s Best Law Firms. Mr. Straub has spoken to audiences throughout the U.S. on immigration, and frequently advises Wisconsin Dairy Farmers on the topic. He has traveled Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials regarding immigration reform. In 2008, the Milwaukee Business Journal described him as a "national leader on the federal immigration issue." Contact him at (414) 224-8472, or [email protected]