In a night of heated exchanges at the second presidential debate, a question about immigration thrust the issue into the limelight for the first time in the debate season.
The candidates largely stuck to their talking points. For Mitt Romney, that meant reiterating that he wouldn't round up millions of people for deportations. President Obama, meanwhile, spoke of wanting a pathway to citizenship for law-abiding undocumented immigrants.
After calling out the president on his failure to deliver immigration reform in his first term, Romney added, "I'll get it done. I'll get it done. First year."
So what would it take for Romney to actually pass an immigration reform bill during his inaugural year? A few things.
1. A Consensus on What Constitutes Reform
Just like any sweeping legislative package, immigration reform is a different thing to different people. The reform plan proposed by George W. Bush (and defeated in 2007), would have created a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented people in the U.S.
President Obama considers such a pathway part of comprehensive reform. But Romney has repeatedly said he does not support amnesty, which, in a historical context going back to the Reagan years, has been understood as a large-scale legalization program.
So before a discussion about immigration reform can get very far, Romney has to be clear about what he would do with the 12 million undocumented people in this country, if not offer them "amnesty" or some other form of citizenship.
2. Cooperation from Congress
You may get your own jet and entourage, but being president comes with a few limitations, namely having to work with a bipartisan Congress to get legislation passed. And as President Obama can tell you after the Obamacare saga, tackling a giant issue with one big reform bill can make for some rugged negotiating and grumpy people on both sides of the aisle.
If Romney wins, the post-election makeup of Congress will be his biggest impediment to delivering on a reform bill. He could make hay with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, but if the Senate stays blue, then expect obstructionism.
And what would a reform bill look like if it was crafted in an all-Republican Congress? You can bet on a guest worker program, like the one Bush proposed in his plan, and something along the lines of the STEM bill. First, the bill would eliminate the diversity lottery program, which currently offers 55,000 visas to applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. In place of those visas, STEM would create visas for highly skilled workers in fields like technology and science.
According to what Romney said last night, it would also include a pathway to permanent residency, but not citizenship, for young undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria.
A reform bill may even be possible with a Democratic senate. As the Romney camp frequently points out, the former Massachusetts governor has had a reputation for being able to work across the aisle, the best example being the passage of a state healthcare bill in Massachusetts. It isn't beyond the pale to believe he could do the same with immigration reform at the national level.
3. The Economy Would Need to Get Better
Whether or not you believe economic growth is necessary for a reform bill to pass, it seems to be a requirement for some conservatives.
Take Grover Norquist, for example: Last week, he spoke at a conference about the need to encourage immigration to strengthen our economy and the fabric of our society. In an interview with ABC/Univision after the speech, however, he stressed that the poor economic conditions over the past four years have made it impossible to have a serious dialogue about immigration reform.
The logic: With unemployment rates that have hit 10 percent during the past four years, elected officials aren't willing to spend political capital on the legalization of 12 million people, when constituents are worried about the economy and jobs.
4. Romney Would Need to Keep Promises He Made During the Campaign
Politicians have a way of saying things during the campaign season and then backseating the issue once in office. President Obama can speak to that. He's often called out by Spanish-language media for failing to keep his promise to pass immigration reform during his first year in office, something he called his "biggest failure" at a September forum hosted by Univision.
Judging by the types of policies Romney endorsed at the debate last night, his version of immigration reform would not have a pathway to citizenship, but it would offer a path to permanent residency for DREAMers. He'd have to stick to that. Or risk having someone remind him of it in four years.
He also reiterated his support for "self-deportation" at the debate, which Obama described as "making life so miserable on folks that they'll leave." Romney had a chance to clarify his stance:
"Now, let me mention one other thing, and that is self-deportation says let people make their own choice. What I was saying is, we're not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented illegals, and take them out of the nation. Instead let people make their own choice. And if they -- if they find that -- that they can't get the benefits here that they want and they can't -- and they can't find the job they want, then they'll make a decision to go a place where -- where they have better opportunities."