Immigration Reform Is Back on the Agenda: What's the Political Strategy?

This afternoon the president will meet with Sens. Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham to discuss immigration reform. The political strategy of attempting immigration reform this year is curious, especially after the epic health-care-reform drama of the past year. Why would Democrats want to pursue such a hot-button, culturally divisive issue this year? They're already looking like they'll have a pretty depressing performance in the polls this November. Surely they'd want to shy away from championing an issue so easily demagogued by Fox News? Do they really want to get into the inevitable fight with organized labor over guest workers in an election year, especially when, after the Citizens United ruling, union dollars will be more valuable than ever? Surely they're not that self-sabotaging.

But maybe there is strategic political wisdom in bringing immigration to the fore. It's the sort of issue that could energize two key demographics for Democrats: young people and Hispanics. Both groups played important roles in propelling Obama to victory in 2008, and both are showing signs that they're not motivated to turn out this fall. Putting immigration reform in the headlines could change that.

With Democrats in charge of the process, immigration will probably be a far more toxic issue for Republicans than Dems. Just ask John McCain, whose support for reform almost cost him the Republican nomination in 2008 and continued to dog him throughout his campaign. (Hill sources tell me he's still feeling burned by the experience, especially after Hispanic leaders failed to come to his defense during the campaign and so has little interest in championing the effort this time around.) Immigration could inspire heated primary challenges to moderate Republicans, or spur independents and tea partiers to jump into races, particularly in the House. Immigration is a wedge issue for Republicans, and in an election year Democrats may very well benefit.

It's a bit too early in the process to speculate with any accuracy what the Obama administration's plans for reform would look like. But some recent discussions I had with Senator Graham (for this profile) might offer some clues. Graham first became engaged in the issue of immigration reform in 2007, when he joined the bipartisan McCain-Kennedy working group. He was vehemently attacked for his efforts by conservatives in South Carolina and elsewhere, who were particularly agitated over provisions allowing approximately 12 million illegal immigrants to claim amnesty and a path to citizenship.

Graham takes a pragmatic view of the amnesty question, arguing that it simply isn't practical to round up and deport 12 million people. He'd rather see those resources spent on securing the border, so that Americans can feel confident that the flow of illegals has been stemmed. "My advice to the administration is that you've got to be laserlike on the border," he told me, adding that he thinks the president should go down there and find out why the fence isn't working. Once that problem is fixed, he says that his colleagues will "come out of the shadows politically and start trying to deal with [immigration] comprehensively." Once comprehensive legislation is passed, he says the next challenge is to control unemployment.

So, if that's any indication, we're likely to see a bill that prioritizes border control but also allows a path to citizenship. Sound familiar? 

(As a side note, it's interesting to see Graham and Obama team up on immigration because last time around the issue strained their nascent relations, leaving Graham in particular with a sour taste over their encounter. Like Graham, Obama had joined the McCain-Kennedy group. It was one of the first times Graham had worked with the then-junior senator. The group had agreed that once the bill reached the floor, none of them would offer amendments, nor would they support amendments offered by other senators. But Obama reneged, offering an amendment that would strip out a temporary-worker program that organized labor hated. Graham was enraged and castigated Obama from the floor. Ted Kennedy dressed down the junior senator in the hallway. "The guy just folded like a cheap suit on immigration," Graham told me in 2008, adding he thought Obama was just in it for the photo op.)