Bloomberg View: Mischief, Politics, and Immigration Reform

Marco Rubio’s constituency of one
The U.S. Capitol in Washington Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

It’s been looking pretty good for immigration reform. Big Business and Big Labor, represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, say they have reached a deal to regulate the flow and status of temporary work visas. Democrats and Republicans, represented by Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, say they may have legislation within days.

Or maybe not. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, another member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that has been working on immigration reform, called reports of progress premature. Rubio is at the center of the action on comprehensive immigration reform for one reason only: He placed himself there. But unlike Graham or Schumer, it’s not entirely clear whose interests Rubio represents.

If Rubio’s presidential ambitions are genuine, he surely has more on his mind than his Florida constituents. The fear is that he will use his pivotal position in negotiations not to advance immigration reform but to win the loyalty of conservatives who implacably oppose it. Despite the progress made, opportunities for mischief abound. Three major obstacles remain to viable legislation.

The first is temporary work visas. The interests of labor and capital are simply not well aligned on this issue. The AFL-CIO, especially its construction trades, fears businesses want to import cheap labor to drive down wages. The Chamber of Commerce fears labor wants to strangle work visas in red tape, leaving businesses unable to find workers at reasonable rates.

Second is the fate of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. There has been no softening against “amnesty” in some quarters. Some hardliners oppose a path to citizenship under any circumstances. Others want to impose so many obstacles—years as resident noncitizens, fines, back taxes, etc.—that they would transform amnesty into purgatory. The U.S. can’t create an official noncitizen underclass without doing permanent damage to both its ideals and its identity.

Third is the issue of border security. One of the more pernicious notions circulating around Washington is a proposal to make citizenship for undocumented immigrants contingent on reaching certain benchmarks in border control. In effect, 11 million people would be held hostage to circumstances beyond their control.

Foes of immigration reform will use each of these vulnerabilities to try to bring the legislation crashing down. Rubio is right: Reform still faces real enemies, real obstacles and, as a result, potentially fatal delays. A march scheduled for April 10 in Washington is a good opportunity for reformers to show strength in numbers. But while 90 percent of life may be just showing up, passing difficult legislation requires considerably more.


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