Commentary: Is Congress finally serious about immigration reform?

The Miami HeraldFebruary 2, 2013 

The ugly duckling of Capitol Hill — immigration reform — has turned into a swan.

Behind the transformation is the powerful message sent by the nation’s Hispanics in the presidential election: 71 percent voted to reelect President Barack Obama, who admitted his failure to bring reform to the forefront but promised it would be a priority of his second term.

Only 27 percent voted for Mitt Romney, who fumbled the topic throughout the campaign, most famously with his “self-deport” offer.

It’s no coincidence that Romney’s showing was the poorest for Republicans since 1996, when Bob Dole lost the Hispanic vote to Bill Clinton.

Now, a growing number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers agree that a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system — one that may put 11 million undocumented immigrants on a path toward citizenship — is good for the nation.

Among those leading the way is Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, whose failed plan early last year on behalf of Dreamers, the undocumented children brought here by their parents as children, did not include citizenship.

That Rubio now sees the need for citizenship — instead of policy that creates a stratum of second-class citizens — is a positive development, as Rubio is an influential party leader.

Whatever the motivation, politics or economic necessity — or that elusive reason, to honor our history as a nation of immigrants — the bipartisanship of the eight senators who released their thoughtful plan Monday is a welcome change.

The plan also would tighten border security, calling for drones and other surveillance equipment, prescribe a stricter employment-verification process and increase the number of guest-worker permits.

Obama endorsed the proposal Tuesday in Las Vegas, but warned of obstacles to overcome as details of the Senate plan are hashed out and sent to the Republican-controlled House.

Let’s trust that Miami’s Republican representatives will show leadership in the House, too.

For a nation divided by political extremes and for the suffering undocumented living in the shadows, the Senate proposal is cause for hope.

Two significant national associations — the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund and the National Council for La Raza — endorsed the bipartisan effort but stressed the importance that reform measures be accessible and affordable.

As presented, the process to legalize one’s status will be lengthy and costly. The undocumented would pay fines and back taxes to the day of arrival before being granted “probationary legal status.” Those demands could leave underground those who can’t afford costs.

An expensive process benefits only the wealthy. Starting off in debt for back taxes hardly opens the door to the desirable prospect that the undocumented become part of the middle class that drives America’s economic engine.

Immigration reform should be more meaningful than a public relations stunt to ensure the Republican Party’s survival.

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