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Obama and Senate compete on immigration reform

A bipartisan Senate group comes out with a bold plan for US immigration reform, pre-empting the president’s own proposals. But can either of them overcome the Republican rhetoric of “border protection”?

In a speech in Las Vegas tomorrow (Australian time), Barack Obama will set out his plan for US immigration reform, building on but going beyond the DREAM bill that was blocked in Congress during his first term. The Senate, however, is trying to get in first, with a comprehensive proposal produced by a bipartisan group of eight senators, four Democrats and four Republicans.

The senators have been meeting over several weeks to craft a plan. Some of the detail is apparently not yet in place, and it will probably fall short of what Obama wants in some respects. But it is nonetheless sweeping in its ambitions, offering to those already in the country the chance to legalise their status simply “by paying a fine and back taxes and passing a background check.”

This would open a path to citizenship for something like 10 million people, so it’s big news. And the senators want to get moving on it quickly, hoping to have legislation drafted by March and voted on by August.

The fact that four leading Republicans – including leading conservative Lindsey Graham, former presidential candidate John McCain and presidential front-runner Marco Rubio – were willing to sign onto this indicates that the ground is shifting within the Republican Party. But it’s by no means clear that they will be able to lock in enough support from their colleagues in the House of Representatives.

In an article at the Conversation on Friday, Nicole Hemmer looked at the history of reform attempts and explained the political bind that the Republicans are in:

Reminding Hispanics of that history helps solidify their ties to the Democratic Party. But putting immigration reform front-and-centre also wedges an already-fractured GOP. The party remains split between immigration hardliners and those who see reform as the only way to heal the rift between Hispanic voters and Republicans.

Rubio in particular realises that in order for his party to recover it needs to be dragged out of the nativist swamp into which it’s fallen over the last few years. But it won’t be easy. The BBC quotes one influential House Republican, Lamar Smith, saying that amnesty “costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration.”

This is the rhetoric that the “Tea Party” thrives on, and that we’re so familiar with from the “border protection” debate in Australia. Yet of course the two are fundamentally different; America’s unauthorised arrivals are not refugees and the country has no international obligation to assist them. But because there are so many of them they have a political and economic constituency that our boat people can only dream of.

Unauthorised immigrants don’t vote, but those who employ them do, as do millions of other Hispanics. The Republican Party is already at the wrong end of enough demographic trends: hence the rapid consensus that it needs to do something about the Hispanic vote. Demonising refugees, while much more morally reprehensible, is at the same time politically safer.

That doesn’t necessarily mean anything to Australian conservatives, who have a habit of adopting American rhetoric wholesale even when the circumstances are radically different. So it’s just possible that a kinder, gentler Republican Party, should it ever eventuate, will also find an echo here. But don’t hold your breath.

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