Arthur Cyr - Immigration reform shows promise for policy, politics

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'The happy and powerful do not go into exile," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, the brilliant visitor from France who struggled to understand the dynamic new American nation nearly two centuries ago.

His trip to the United States in the 1830s, and his book, Democracy in America, speak directly to the historic current reform of immigration.

President Barack Obama has provided a capstone to the successful bipartisan effort in Congress. In a speech Tuesday, he he praised the cooperative initiative of Senate Democrats and Republicans to update our tangled and disorderly immigration laws, regulations and practices.

The president spoke in Las Vegas, a rapidly growing city with a large population of immigrants, both legal and illegal. Substantial numbers of immigrants work in the hotel and related service industries, one of the few sectors of the U.S. economy where union strength is growing. Since New Deal days, labor unions have been a mainstay of Democratic Party support.

Obama's points reflect those emphasized by lawmakers, including increased border security, penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants, and an orderly path toward legal residence and citizenship to help undocumented residents "get on the right side of the law." He rightly termed this approach "common sense" given the current realities.

In the Senate, Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida and Democrat Charles Schumer of New York are among those spearheading immigration reforms. McCain has long been interested in the subject. He and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., led a similar immigration effort in 2006. Their bill succeeded in the Senate, only to fail in the House. McCain consistently stresses essential border security.

Rubio, a possible presidential contender in 2016, is a conservative with strong Tea Party support. Florida has been pivotal in recent presidential elections, especially in 2000, where an exceptionally close race in the state between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore led the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and declare Bush the winner. The state has a large, heavily Hispanic immigrant population.

Schumer is vice chairman of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, making him his party's third-ranking leader, after the majority leader and the party whip. His prominence in the effort underscores the bipartisan character and also adds geographic diversity, joining the Northeast of the country with the Sunbelt.

The Hispanic population is growing rapidly. While it's heavily Democratic -- giving the Obama-Biden ticket an estimated 71 percent of its votes in 2012 -- it also shows variability.

The GOP's modern record for winning Hispanic votes came in 2004, when the Bush-Cheney ticket secured an estimated 44 percent. The Bush family has sponsored a sustained effort to court this population, beginning at least as early as George H.W. Bush's successful 1988 presidential campaign.

Some Republicans believe the traditional conservative Catholic outlook of many Hispanics provides an opportunity for recruitment, despite current voting trends.

The country's first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, wrote A Nation of Immigrants and used this column's opening Tocqueville quote. The book was published posthumously -- shortly after Kennedy's administration had submitted immigration-reform legislation to Congress. The book emphasized the country's exceptionally diverse population. Early on, it made the point that the country's only indigenous residents were the Native Americans who greeted the first Europeans to land here.

Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, pushed the historic reform legislation through Congress.

Now, Obama and the current Congress have the opportunity to make history, too.

(Arthur Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of After the Cold War.)

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