WASHINGTON—Comprehensive immigration reform failed in 2007 when pro-union Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., introduced an amendment to end the proposed guest worker program after five years. Then-Sen. Barack Obama cast the deciding vote in a 49-48 tally, eroding support among Republicans who were left with little reason to favor the legislation.
On Jan. 29, President Obama unveiled a plan for “comprehensive” immigration reform without mention of a wide-scale guest worker program. The president’s plan calls for increased border security, employment verification, and a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States—the same three-pronged approach President Ronald Reagan used in 1986. A bipartisan group of eight senators, including Republican Sen. John McCain and others involved in the failed 2007 effort, one day earlier put forth a plan similar to Obama’s. It would allow for more agricultural jobs, but it won’t help other industries such as the recovering housing market attract migrant workers.
“If you want to stop illegal immigration, you have to provide a lawful way for low-skilled immigrants to come,” Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, told me. He said addressing the long-term structural problems of the system is vital, especially since this may be the last time amnesty legislation is considered for a generation.
The political climate is ripe for reform after Hispanic voters broke heavily for Democrats in the 2012 elections. But some opponents of reform have labeled the Obama and Senate plans “Amnesty 2.0.” Opponents worry that, as after the 1986 reforms, promises about border security won’t be kept. Yet Republican Sen. Marco Rubio—a Tea Party favorite—is a surprise member of the so-called “Gang of Eight.” Rubio, widely considered a 2016 GOP presidential candidate, took immediate heat for endorsing the plan, and he could drop out: Immigration reform without a robust guest worker program could prove to be a high-risk, low reward proposition, with Rubio’s political future hanging in the balance.