The word piecemeal always has had a negative connotation for me, although by definition it is not necessarily a bad thing.In particular, when I’ve heard it used in reference to immigration reform in this country, it most definitely has caused me to cringe — that is, until just a few days ago.Speaker of the House John Boehner, who last month showed some backbone by renouncing Tea Party criticism of a budget deal, is now talking seriously about addressing our failed immigration system, albeit in a piecemeal fashion. The speaker didn’t actually use that word, calling instead for a “step-by-step approach” to perhaps the most neglected major problem this nation faces.For months now, Boehner has been urged by pro-reform advocates to buck the base of his party and put immigration on the table. In the past he had said he wouldn’t bring up a proposal until a majority of Republicans in the House agreed to it.A comprehensive reform bill, passed by the Senate this summer, has languished in the lower chamber, with Boehner refusing to bring it up for a vote.With pressure coming from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, corporate heads and representatives of farmers and ranchers in need of labor, the speaker will have some cover as he moves forward with yet-unspecified piecemeal proposals. He still will have to deal with members of the House from conservative districts where immigration is a dirty word.The fact that Boehner is prepared to talk about it at all, especially in an election year, is cause for hope. His seriousness was made more apparent when he hired a former immigration adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been a longtime supporter of comprehensive immigration reform.Even President Barack Obama has cautiously endorsed Boehner’s approach, with the caveat that it eventually reaches the goals outlined in the Senate-passed bill. The major part of that plan — a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country — has been a nonstarter for most Republicans, who see it as amnesty.Republicans’ main emphasis, of course, has been on border security, including building more fences, adding more personnel and using more technology like drones to try to keep illegal immigrants out.It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw a series of proposals coming from Boehner and his colleagues in the House that would address these issues, probably in this order: 1) more money for border enforcement; 2) increasing the number of visas for high-skilled workers; and 3) creating a guest-worker program that would provide foreign seasonal employees to harvest crops.That means that the legalization issue is likely to be put on the back burner in the middle of the election season. But that could be a tactical mistake that Boehner and the Republicans will come to regret.There can be no meaningful immigration reform without addressing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here, many of whom are part of the American fabric whether people like it or not.Keep in mind that the major reason Republicans are willing to talk about it at all is because it is an issue that Hispanics care about. Realizing that Obama received 71 percent of the Latino vote in 2012, many in the GOP know they can’t make inroads with that constituency without serious immigration reform. And without increasing the Hispanic percentage of the vote, many think there’s no way Republicans can win a national election in 2016, no matter who the Democrats nominate for president.At least Boehner is trying to show some leadership on the issue, something that has been lacking from the speaker’s office in recent years. So, let him bring it on, even if it is piecemeal.
Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders