September 22, 2016


How Washington Blew Its Best Chance To Fix Immigration (Alec MacGillis, September 19, 2016, pRO pUBLICA)

I didn't bring up Trump in my conversation with Labrador, but Labrador did. In the midst of talking about the collapse of the immigration-reform effort he had been part of, he broke off and said, matter-of-factly: "The reason we have Donald Trump as a nominee today is because we as Republicans have failed on this issue."

Democrat Xavier Becerra had gotten the House talks on immigration reform started in 2007 with Republican Sam Johnson. In late 2012, he approached Johnson. "We've got Barack Obama for another four years. Think we can start talking again?" (Jeff Brown for The New York Times) "We could figure this out"

It's easy to forget how recently the Hispanic vote was viewed as up for grabs. In 2004, George W. Bush won 44 percent of Latino voters. As late as 2006, Democrats and Republicans responded similarly to a Pew Research Center question about whether immigrants "strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents," with about 40 percent in each party saying yes.

Seeking to secure lasting Hispanic support for Republicans, Bush in 2007 threw his support behind a bipartisan push for comprehensive immigration reform on the Hill. But the legislation failed amid a talk-radio-fueled backlash over "amnesty" -- granting legal status to many immigrants who arrived in the country illegally -- as well as a lack of political capital on Bush's part and ambivalence among many Democrats and organized labor about the bill's provisions.

In late 2007, after that effort foundered, Representative Xavier Becerra, a Los Angeles Democrat, approached Representative Sam Johnson, a Republican from the northern suburbs of Dallas. Becerra, the American-born son of Mexican immigrants, had grown up hearing his father talk about seeing "No dogs or Mexicans" signs in windows. By his estimate, his district held more noncitizens than any other in the country, and it seemed to him that his entire career in Congress had been defined by the fight to bring clarity for those people and their families.

Johnson, a retired Air Force colonel who spent nearly seven years in a North Vietnamese prison after being shot down during the Vietnam War, was staunchly conservative but not doctrinaire; Becerra was easygoing and well-liked by many of his Republican colleagues. The two congressmen had worked together in the past. "I said, 'Sam, I betcha you and I, we're about as opposite as you can get, but if you and I sat down, we could figure this out,' " Becerra says. "He said, 'You know what, partner, you're probably right.' "

Becerra and Johnson invited colleagues to expand the conversation, and by the 2008 election, the group had grown to 16. They met often, for hours at a time, and always behind closed doors, to protect the Republicans participating -- memories of the 2007 backlash lingered. By 2010, they had the bones of a bill. "It became clear that there were a whole bunch of R's that wanted to get this done," Becerra told me.

The essential elements of any comprehensive reform package had been clear for some time: improving enforcement for those overstaying their visas; tightening border security; easing the route for legal entry to reduce future illegal immigration and supply the work force; and coming to a disposition for the millions already in the United States. In early 2010, the group worked through the usual tension points -- how many guest workers to allow for agriculture and other seasonal employment, what kind of compliance to demand from employers, how many visas to grant for high-tech workers from abroad, how long the path to citizenship for those granted legal status should be and so on.

They made real progress that year, but outside the room, the climate was deteriorating. House Republicans had mounted party-line opposition to Obama's economic-stimulus package, climate legislation and Obamacare. There also simply wasn't the necessary time or attention available, the secretary of homeland security at the time, Janet Napolitano, told me. "The energies of the administration were focused on the economy, and we were still in Iraq and Afghanistan," she says.

That fall, Republicans swept the House, deposing many of the Democrats involved in the immigration effort, and the talks came to an abrupt end. The lesson was plain: Bipartisan huddles were well and good, but they meant little in the absence of will on the part of party leaders.

That will suddenly materialized after Mitt Romney's decisive loss in the 2012 presidential election. Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, devastating his chances in swing states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado. Republican leaders and conservative pundits took a hard look at his 44-point deficit with Hispanics and saw in it both threat and opportunity. On one hand, a Republican Party that could not attract Hispanic voters risked demographic obsolescence. On the other, a party that could attract those voters might not need to change much else in its policy platform.

It seemed a seductively easy fix. "There's no need for radical change," the conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who had previously opposed reform, wrote two days after the election. "The other party thinks it owns the demographic future -- counter that in one stroke by fixing the Latino problem." Also announcing his conversion that day was Sean Hannity of Fox News. "It's simple to me to fix it," he said. "If people are here, law-abiding, participating for years, their kids are born here, you know, first secure the border, pathway to citizenship, done."

Eight days after the election, Bill O'Reilly aired a segment on immigration reform on his Fox News show and invited on Luis Gutiérrez, a Democrat born to Puerto Rican parents who represents part of Chicago and for a time participated in Becerra and Johnson's bipartisan talks. "I have many Republican colleagues, good men and women," Gutiérrez told O'Reilly. "And you know what they've been telling me? They said: 'Luis, let's take this off the table. Let's take it off the table once and for all, or you're going to run the tables on us.' "

The following day, Gutiérrez was at the House of Representatives' gymnasium when he spied the Republican Party's most famous gym rat: Representative Paul Ryan, who was readjusting to normal life in the Capitol after the Romney campaign. "Hey man, I did everything I could to be sure you couldn't be vice president," Gutiérrez told him. "Just joking."

Ryan took the gibe in stride, then got down to business. He told Gutiérrez that he'd seen him the night before on O'Reilly's show. "He said to me, 'I don't want to do it to take it off the table, Luis,' " Gutiérrez told me. " 'I don't want to do it because it's politically expedient. I want to do it because it's the right thing to do, because I'm Catholic, and my Christian values say we cannot have millions of people in second-tier status.' I was like, Brother, you and I are going to get along just fine."

Posted by at September 22, 2016 7:15 PM