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Daring to hope for immigration reform

Our hopes have been dashed before, and they may well be again. Still, we’ll choose to be optimists about the chances of Congress passing immigration reform this year, despite these lawmakers’ track record of getting nothing done.

Why do we dare to anticipate they really might kick the football this year? Three reasons.

 It’s now abundantly clear to most everyone along the political spectrum that America’s current immigration system is broken. Some 11 million people live in the United States in limbo, including millions of young people brought here through no fault of their own. Businesses demand labor while looking the other way on immigration status. And the apparatus to let people – including highly skilled people – immigrate legally doesn’t work. True, this is not a new revelation, but it seems less debatable than ever.

 Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who leads the chamber where immigration reform has gone to die in the past, appears to be coming around. He has taken at least two steps recently that could indicate his willingness to pass some immigration changes. First, in December he hired Rebecca Tallent, who was Sen. John McCain’s top aide leading the charge for reform in 2007. There was little reason to hire her except for this task. Second, Boehner demonstrated his independence from the tea party wing of his party late last month. He called its opposition to a bipartisan budget deal “ridiculous” and said, “Frankly, I just think that they have lost all credibility.” About two dozen House Republicans have publicly indicated they support some kind of immigration reform, and if Boehner is now standing up to the most extreme members of his party, others are likely to follow.

 2014 is an election year. While that normally makes members of Congress reluctant to touch an issue as electric as immigration reform, enough Republicans might remember Hispanics’ overwhelming support for Democrats in 2012 and see an opportunity for a political bounce. (It’s possible, of course, that more Republicans are susceptible to a challenge from the right than they are to a lack of Latino support.)

There’s little question that the House won’t pass comprehensive reform like the Senate passed last summer. But Boehner has said he would consider a piecemeal approach. That’s not ideal, but President Obama and congressional Democrats should be open to that kind of a compromise. At this point it is the only realistic option, and beats the current situation.

At a minimum, Congress could come together to knock out the easiest pieces. That would include passing the DREAM Act, which allows law-abiding children brought here by their parents to further their education and ultimately attain legal status. It should include easing the path for highly skilled workers to immigrate. It could include steps to further secure the border and require employers to verify immigration status. And it could include easing back on Obama’s aggressive deportation policy, allowing illegal immigrants to live here legally but not yet attain citizenship.

We doubt anything will happen in the next month or two. But after primary filing deadlines have passed, House Republicans could begin moving legislation without the fear of igniting primary challenges from the far right.

It would be the right thing for millions living in the shadows, it would boost America’s economy and it just might begin to broaden the Republican Party’s tent.

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