5 Politicians Who Could Make Immigration Reform a Reality

Support from leaders in Congress will be essential for a bill to pass.

November 8, 2012, 6:43 PM

Nov. 8, 2012— -- Immigration reform. It's the talk of the town post-election.

Senate Democrats, Republican leaders and some business titans are all saying that reform should happen early in President Barack Obama's second term, an idea that's been catapulted forward by the pivotal role Latinos played in the election.

The president is on board, too. After promising reform on the campaign trail (yes, again), he mentioned it prominently in his acceptance speech.

If the temperature is right for reform then it will be up to Washington to make it happen.

"We want citizenship for 11 million people and we're not going to stop until we get it," said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America's Voice, a group that lobbies for immigration reform. "But first we have to get to the table, let's not start talking about an end deal."

Here are five of the players in Washington who can help make reform happen:

1. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio)

Democrats control the White House and the Senate but Republicans have a strong majority in the House. Congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle will be key, but none more than the Republican leadership in the House. Boehner doesn't need unanimous support among Republicans -- and he likely won't get it -- but he will need to corral something in the neighborhood of 25 votes.

In a Nov. 8 interview with "World News" anchor Diane Sawyer, Boehner expressed a willingness to tackle immigration: "This issue has been around far too long," he said. "A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all."

2. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)

Moving straight down the line of House leadership, Cantor will be an important when it comes to time to secure Republican votes. Fresh off a convincing reelection win, Cantor could be a unifying voice for the party. "He has an ability to work with the Tea Party caucus of the GOP as well as the more traditional GOP," said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "His skill in negotiating and navigating that bridge is going to be really important."

His office is already talking about reform: "We understand that we can't keep kicking this can down the road,'' an aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday. "We're going to address the 11 million people."

3. Arizona's Senators

Go figure: The two Republican senators from the state with the so-called "papers, please" law could be influential voices in the immigration reform debate, and help make reform a reality. When it comes to immigration reform, Sen. John McCain is his party's best-known voice on the issue, despite a turn to the right over the past four years.

"What is his position? The border has to be more secure before we can move on to immigration reform," said Sharry. "Well, the border is more secure than ever....He could easily pivot if he wanted to, he would be hailed as the returning maverick."

Fellow Arizona Republican and Senator-elect Jeff Flake could also move the debate. Although he's gone back-and-forth on immigration policy: Before 2010, he supported the DREAM Act, a bill that would create a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who serve in the military or attend college. But he voted against the bill in the House two years ago (it passed the House but was eventually defeated in the Senate).

"In the past I have supported a broad approach to immigration reform - increased border security coupled with a temporary worker program. I no longer do," Flake wrote on his campaign website in March 2011. "I've been down that road, and it is a dead end. The political realities in Washington are such that a comprehensive solution is not possible, or even desirable given the current leadership. Border security must be addressed before other reforms are tackled."

During his 2012 campaign, Flake reaffirmed his support for comprehensive immigration reform, saying that he would pick up such legislation if the border was adequately secured.

Like McCain, Flake's focus on border security leaves him room to negotiate with Democrats. A reform package that includes increased spending on border security in his state could be a potential trade-off.

4. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.)

The Illinois Congressman has been a highly visible face in the fight for immigration reform. He serves as the chair for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force, and rights groups have called him a "champion of immigration reform" for his unwavering support. In 2009, Gutiérrez introduced an immigration reform bill in the House but the legislation never gained adequate support.

He was arrested outside the White House while protesting deportations in August 2011, but backed the Obama candidacy after the administration loosened deportation guidelines for "low priority" immigration cases shortly thereafter.

Gutiérrez and the Hispanic Caucus will be leaders on the issue again, according to Noorani.

"They were so key in terms of pressuring the administration and holding the Democratic Party accountable," he said. "When you talk to folks in the Latino community, Gutiérrez is their leader."

5. President Barack Obama

No single politician will be more instrumental in passing an immigration reform bill than the man in the Oval Office. Not only will he have to secure enough votes in the House and Senate, he'll need to make the case to the American public that reform is needed and possible.

"He definitely came short in terms of demonstrating leadership on the issue," said Cristina Jiménez, managing director of United We Dream. She compared passing immigration reform to healthcare: "He's going to have to do whatever it takes."

Four years ago, the political discussions about immigration reform largely took place behind closed doors, as the president spent his time trying to sell people on sweeping healthcare legislation. Legislation by Gutiérrez didn't gain traction in the House nor did a bill by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., in the Senate.

According to Frank Sharry, the strategy should change this time around.

"It would be wise for the president to spend more time on the road talking about this issue than in the back room negotiating," he said. "The right strategy is to have a very public discussion on immigration policy and immigration politics."

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