Rand Paul’s change of heart shows elections matter

Remember all the talk in Washington about immigration reform last April? Of course you don’t, because there wasn’t any. Congress had been gridlocked since before the election of 2008, and President Barack Obama, who had promised reform during that campaign, had done nothing to move it forward.

What a difference an election makes. Obama won 71 percent of the fast-growing Hispanic vote, a margin that probably carried him to victory in the battleground states of Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. Suddenly, the long-term political implications of the country’s inexorable demographic shift became too blindingly obvious to ignore.

Since November, many Republicans who had previously fought against anything resembling what they called “amnesty” have come out in favor of some kind of comprehensive reform.

Will that happen?

A lot of previously anti-reform conservatives are now speaking out for it.

“Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans like myself become part of the solution,” Sen. Rand Paul said last month in a speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “That is why I’m here today, to begin that conversation.”

Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus now says, “Our party must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.”

A new organization called Republicans for Immigration Reform, chaired by former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, has declared that its mission is “to provide political support for Republican candidates that advance common-sense solutions to address the nation’s broken immigration system.”

Both the House and the Senate have had active bipartisan “gangs of eight” working on the issue since the new Congress convened in January. Perhaps the most significant breakthrough on the issue came two weeks ago when the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported they had come to an agreement on a guest-worker provision for low-skilled immigrants.

I can’t recall the last time these two organizations agreed on anything. I do know this takes a lot of heat off legislators on both sides of the aisle who are honestly trying to find common ground.

Washington is abuzz with rumors that the Senate gang of eight has reached some kind of agreement and will present an immigration bill by the end of this week. When and if that happens, battle lines are going to be drawn and the country’s still-deep divisions on the issue will be revealed.

The sticking point is whether or not the proposed reform includes some process whereby people who are here illegally are given an eventual “pathway to citizenship.” While a Pew Research poll released last week reports that 71 percent of Americans believe there should be a way for people in the U.S. illegally to remain, they are sharply divided on whether that means permanent residency or citizenship. A recent ABC-Washington Post poll showed that just 35 percent of Republicans support the idea of a path to citizenship while 60 percent oppose it.

I have high hopes for a compromise bill passing in the Senate. It will nearly certainly include stringent new measures to improve border security and a very arduous and long process that will give law-abiding and tax-paying immigrants an opportunity to become citizens. Many Democrats will find the process too harsh; many Republicans will argue the process should be even more difficult. But the urgent need for reform should prevail.

If the bill passes the Senate, it will face a much different challenge in the House. That is in large part due to gerrymandering and the concentration I have previously written about of like-minded voters in congressional districts. Of the 234 seats currently held by Republicans, 144 have fewer than 10 percent Hispanic voters; 192 have fewer than 20 percent.

That means there could be a problem getting a vote in the House. For years, the Republicans in the House have had the “Hastert Rule,” which requires a majority of the party to agree on any legislation before it is brought to the floor. The good news is that the rule has already been broken three times this year.

I am optimistic. If Rand Paul can change his position, so can others.

Originally published 13 Apr 2013 on delawareonline.com