After more than two years of Washington focused on short term contrived financial deadlines, our nation’s government is preparing for a different – and significant – policy debate. Possibly as early as this week, the U.S. Senate is expected to release a bi-partisan proposal to reform immigration laws.
The ability to get the group made of four Republican and four Democratic senators will be difficult enough. The ability to hold the Republican base as supporters of this bill and those who vote for it will test the party’s new self-awareness of their outreach problems. It will likely start with an attack on the simple but often misused word associated with any attempt at immigration reform – Amnesty.
Amnesty is defined by Webster as “the act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” Dictionary.com offers “a general pardon for offenses, especially political offenses, against a government, often granted before any trial or conviction” and “a forgetting or overlooking of any past offense.”
It is important that the cries of “Amnesty” be understood for what they are with respect to what will be proposed. While details are not yet public, there will not be amnesty. That is, there will likely be some form of acknowledgement from each person who would apply for a permanent visa that they had violated U.S. law, and a fine will likely be administered. This is an important distinction because “amnesty” requires forgiveness and forgetting. Acknowledging an illegal act and facing some consequence as such voids any claim that those who become legal have been given amnesty.
The question, then, is what is an appropriate punishment for those who acknowledge their illegal status? It is generally acknowledged that there will not be a mass deportation, forced or otherwise. It is unlikely that Republicans will ever try to thread the needle with an impractical and unsellable concept like “self-deportation” again. And rightfully so.
Instead, a plan that is rooted in the rhetoric used by Newt Gingrich during the 2012 campaign is more likely to be used. An understanding that the party of family values will not be seeking to break up families that have lived here for decades will be part of the sale. Republicans also have one of their Tea Party darlings, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, negotiating at the table among the eight senators crafting the anticipated 1,500 page bill.
Rubio, of Cuban heritage, will be a large part of the Republican sales team. The reaction to Rubio from the immigration reform hardliners will tell Republicans how big of a problem they have within their base, and whether or not the party will be able to reach out to Hispanic voters in the near future.
For those that believe a fine is not appropriate for violating laws, it would be helpful to remember that not all laws are enforced and adjudicated equally. We don’t incarcerate people for minor infractions, usually issuing a fine instead.
For immigration reform to be accepted within the Republican base there has to be some ability to frame the crime of coming here illegally as an act similar to that of not much more than a speeding ticket or a civil infraction – Something that a fine is appropriate for the crime.
This will be an easier sell if the rest of the proposal includes a process to secure borders, and an emphasis on granting work visas for those who wish to come here to work, but not accelerating the process for citizenship for those who chose to break the law over those who have been working the lengthy and cumbersome process of citizenship via proper channels.
Democrats are looking forward to moving the debate away from fiscal issues now that their major budget proposals from the President and Senate are focused on new taxes and new spending rather than deficit reduction. They also understand the issue of immigration will be difficult for Republicans to placate portions of their base while not turning off swing voters and Hispanic voters.
Republican activists need to understand the challenge presented by this issue and the stakes for attaining future majorities in Congress and the White House.