No one saw this coming. The pundits had declared immigration reform dead for this year.
Efforts to pass a House bill stalled in January when Speaker John Boehner couldn’t persuade his Republican ranks to take up the issue.
Then on May 14, a strange thing happened.
The co-founder of the Tea Party Express, Sal Russo, teamed up with several other conservative Republicans to insist that immigration reform get passed by August.
That coincided with the release of a national survey of 400 Republican primary voters that found 69 percent of Tea Party supporters want immigration reform this year, and 73 percent support a plan that would include improved border security, enforcement and a way for undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. if they meet certain conditions.
“Conservatives should be leaders in the immigration reform movement,” Russo declared in a conference call.
He cited poll data showing 76 percent of Tea Party Republicans support Boehner’s proposal.
In a piece published in Roll Call that same day, Russo wrote, “The sole criteria for immigration reform should be what is good for America.”
Legal immigration has contributed to our having the strongest economy and most innovative businesses, he wrote. But the economy has outgrown its visa program, which is not meeting the need both for high-skilled workers and seasonal farm workers.
And there is no visa for entrepreneurs. “Doing nothing now means hurting businesses just as we are coming out of the Great Recession,” Russo wrote, noting, “Today, 40 percent of our Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or child of an immigrant.”
The principles Boehner outlined to his GOP conference stressed enforcement before legalization of the 11 million undocumented immigrants here and would require them to admit culpability, pass background checks, pay fines and back taxes, be proficient in English and American civics, as well as support themselves.
Boehner said his colleagues didn’t trust Obama to implement the law the way they passed it.
Since when has that fear prevented passage of a bill?
Al Cardenas, president of the American Conservative Union, said Boehner’s decision not to bring up the bill unless a majority of House Republicans favor it had made its prospects more challenging. But he is confident a bill can pass by this fall, because of leadership from social conservatives who consider it an issue of moral fairness.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, pointed out that Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., just won a primary challenge in what some considered a test case of the issue. Her challenger had used Ellmers’ support of immigration reform to try to defeat her.
Russo, Norquist and Cardenas deserve credit for coming out firmly for something everyone knows has to happen. Both sides should now seize the momentum, put down their weapons and get it done.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.