Fred Barnes: Immigration Reform Is Starting to Roll

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.

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.”

Then there is the Boston bombing. Its impact on the fate of immigration legislation is unclear, but it isn’t likely to make passage any easier. GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said the bombing has exposed “a weakness in our current system.” If the immigration debate isn’t used “as an opportunity to fix flaws . . . made even more evident last week, then we will not be doing our jobs.”

Mr. Rubio echoed Mr. Paul. “I disagree with those who say that the terrorist attack in Boston has no bearing on the immigration debate,” he said in a statement on Monday. “The attack reinforces why immigration reform should be a lengthy, open, and transparent process.” The current schedule calls for a final vote before the July 4 congressional recess.

That may be optimistic. The Gang of Eight’s bill is 844 pages long and provides opponents with plenty of opportunities for objections. It would create two stages toward citizenship—first legal residency here, second a green card and permanent status. Border security would have to be bolstered in measurable ways before green cards are issued and a path to becoming citizens is opened.

The security aspects of the bill—which have prompted serious attacks, mostly from conservatives—are both complicated and open to different interpretations. For instance, if in five years from the bill’s enactment all nine segments of the Southwest border aren’t 100% secure, and if 90% of those crossing illegally aren’t being apprehended, then a Southern Border Security Commission of four governors and six Washington appointees would draft a new security plan. Whether the commission would have the authority to impose its plan is in dispute.

To answer critics, Mr. Rubio’s Gang of Eight allies have largely stood aside and let him respond. He is neither shy nor risk-averse. He volunteered to appear on the talk-radio show of Mark Levin, a conservative and opponent of the proposed reform bill. The senator told Rush Limbaugh that the four governors on the 10-member border commission “will take care of this problem and they’ll be given the money to be able to take care of it.” He didn’t explain exactly how.

Mr. Rubio is best at touting the virtues of immigration reform and refuting the notion that Hispanics, once citizens, will overwhelmingly vote Democratic. “I think the future of conservatism and, in fact, the future of America depends on how effective we are at explaining to as many Americans as possible why the road we are on right now is such an economic disaster,” he said on the Limbaugh show. “I just refuse to accept the notion that somehow we’re not going to be able to make that argument successfully to Hispanics.”

The Senate will be first to act this year, and the bill needs 60 votes to pass. With Mr. Rubio supporting it, Mr. Graham says it can get 70 votes, including half of the 45 Republicans. He suggests passage by 48 Democrats and 22 Republicans. That’s optimistic but not impossible.

The House won’t rubber-stamp the Senate bill. The guest-worker program is likely to be expanded in the House. But on immigration the House isn’t an automatic barrier to Senate legislation. House Speaker John Boehner and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan have spoken favorably about immigration reform.

Jeffrey Bell, a Republican consultant who works with Hispanic groups, says the momentum behind reforming the immigration system will make a bill “unstoppable” if the Senate and House pass bills and then confer to meld the two.

Will a new law help Republicans? Hispanic support for GOP presidential candidates fell from George W. Bush’s 44% in 2004 to Mitt Romney’s 27% last year. Mr. Rubio says that Republicans shouldn’t expect a surge of Hispanic votes, but Hispanics will at least be willing to “listen to us.”

Mr. Bell, a former adviser to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, goes further, arguing that Republicans shouldn’t worry about who gets credit for successful reform. “If Democrats get 10 times more credit, it’s still in Republicans’ interest,” he says. “It will free them” to compete for votes that, more often than not, were beyond their reach.

Mr. Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, is a Fox News commentator.

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