Why immigration reform is unlikely to happen in 2010.
Speaking at a rally in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sen. Harry Reid promised to pass immigration reform in 2010. "There are no excuses. This is something America needs," Reid said. "We're going to do immigration reform just like we did health care reform."
If by that he means with long delays, confusing starts and stops, obsessions over provisions that never make it into the bill, and despair followed by sudden resurrection and historic passage, then he could be right. It's just hard to imagine all that happening this year, let alone before election season.
The biggest problem is the calendar. Right after stepping off the campaign trail, Reid said that the Senate will not be tackling immigration reform during this work period, which extends through the end of May. Instead, they'll be tackling jobs bills, food-safety legislation, financial regulatory reform, and a bill that would address campaign finance and the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. That leaves June and July for the Supreme Court nomination, an energy bill (which seems to keep slipping down the list), and whatever priorities they didn't manage to address in the spring. Congress takes August off, and after that the members will be campaigning.
All this is not to say Reid can't squeeze in immigration reform. But for that to happen, everything would have to go according to plan—which, if health care reform was any indication, is unlikely. Also, Reid's promise Saturday was eerily similar to one he made last year.
Then there's the matter of votes. Reid says he has 56 votes for a bill, the exact contours of which remain unclear. He needs four more. But there are enough Democrats firmly against reform that the remaining four would have to be mostly or all Republicans, according to a Daily Kos analysis. You'd think that would be simple, given that 12 Republicans—including Lindsay Graham, Judd Gregg, John Kyl, John McCain, and Olympia Snowe—voted in favor of immigration reform in 2007. But just because they supported it then doesn't mean they support it now. That was a different bill under a Republican president. For example, Obama's version probably wouldn't include a temporary guest worker program favored by Republicans. (Labor unions have always opposed the idea.) It may also include a biometric identification card to help employers verify that their employees are legal immigrants, which freaks out civil liberties advocates on the left and small-government conservatives on the right, despite efforts to pitch it as just a high-tech Social Security card.
Lastly, there's the politics. Sure, passing a bill would help Reid, whose state is a quarter Hispanic. And the Latino vote has been a "key demographic" for both parties for so long that it can probably retire the title. But Democrats less reliant on Latino turnout would be criticized for putting the economy in danger during a recession. Some economists, including Robert Reich, argue that immigration reform would actually help the economy and reduce the deficit by bringing more young people into the taxpaying fold. Others argue it would boost GDP in the long run. But that's a tough sell to voters focused on holding down jobs now.
Harry Reid can do whatever he wants, of course. He's the majority leader. And what he wants may simply be to show he made a good-faith effort, after which everybody can go home. It's like his recent pledge to revive the public option even though it had no chance of passing. He got points for trying—or appearing to try. Likewise with immigration reform. Whether or not a bill reaches the Senate floor, Reid wins. Actual reform is just a bonus.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of Sen. Harry Reid by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.