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Immigration reform is still doable

By Tamar Jacoby, Special to CNN
  • Tamar Jacoby says GOP strength in Congress might seem bad for immigration reform
  • Not necessarily, she says, even though the issue has lost momentum of a few years ago
  • Compromise might be more likely in new, less lopsided Congress; Latino vote a spur to act
  • Jacoby: Parties have to swallow hard, take a deal to show voters they can solve problems

Editor's note: Tamar Jacoby is president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small business owners advocating immigration reform.

(CNN) -- Many Americans watching election returns Tuesday night thought they heard a door clanging shut. Certainly on immigration reform, among other causes, the conventional wisdom is grim: There's no hope of passage in the wake of big Republican gains in Congress.

Maybe -- but maybe not. We won't know until the new Congress convenes in January, if then. And the chances of movement, on immigration and many other issues, will depend less on where the parties stand now or what candidates said on the campaign trail than on whether members of Congress can relearn the lost art -- not seen for several sessions now -- of compromising to make deals on bipartisan legislation.

Don't get me wrong. The pessimists aren't imagining things: There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical.

Both parties are still in the fighting mood of the campaign trial. Tea Party wins have bolstered the least compromising Republicans and those least supportive of immigration reform -- Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, for one.

And progressive recriminations that Obama lost by being too moderate are sure to roil the Democratic Party for months to come, making it difficult for Democrats to look across the aisle. All talk of compromise is likely to be just that -- empty talk, and worse, a partisan weapon through the lame duck session and into next year.

It's also true that what bipartisan consensus once existed on immigration has ebbed significantly since its high-water mark in 2006. For all Obama's promises, neither Republicans nor centrist Democrats have shown much stomach to address the issue in the past two years.

Action has been on enforcement measures only, not the broader reforms that as strange a pair as President George W. Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy once championed together -- a compromise that would have combined enforcement with a large temporary worker program and generous legalization for illegal immigrants already here.

Though congressional leaders have come forward to fill both men's shoes, none have attracted a bipartisan following. And in recent months, Republicans in particular have been hesitant to endorse what struck many as a partisan Democratic approach -- a pre-cooked deal, heavy on legalization and light on temporary workers, that Democrats seemed ready to present to Latino voters as a Democratic victory passed not with but despite Republicans.

So what might change in January? Why talk of hope? Two reasons: divided government and the looming presidential election of 2012, which neither party can win without Latino voters.

As every political junkie knows, Latinos are the nation's fastest growing voting block. Because of where they live, concentrated in a few swing states, they were a crucial piece -- some say the crucial piece -- of Obama's 2008 margin of victory. Immigration reform is a litmus-test issue, and because of immigration, in recent years many Latinos have soured on Republicans. This week, Latinos turned out in healthy numbers and voted overwhelmingly Democratic -- often by margins of more than 30 percent.

Republicans aren't blind to this arithmetic. Indeed, the number who are paying attention has grown substantially in the past few years. Those who have their eye on national elections -- think presidential hopefuls -- are particularly concerned. And three Latino Republicans made big news this week: the new Cuban-American senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, along with two new Western governors, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susana Martinez of New Mexico.

All three are important new voices with big ambitions, and they will help remind other Republicans: Latino voters are up for grabs -- not like African-Americans, solidly Democrats, but woo-able and winnable for the GOP.

Of course, not only Latinos care about immigration. Non-Latino voters, too, are fed up with the broken system. And this is where divided government comes in.

In a lopsided Congress, where one party has a supermajority or close, there's little or no incentive to compromise -- you can pass almost anything you want without making nice, so why make concessions to get a deal? This will no longer be true in the 112th Congress: Little if anything is going to pass without compromise.

Neither party will have much to show for itself if it does not find ways to work across the aisle. And just saying "no" to the other side's proposals is likely to wear thin very quickly with the independent voters who decided this election and the last one and will surely be the prize in 2012.

Independents like lawmakers who are problem-solvers, not partisan grandstanders -- and even the politicians preening most ideologically this week will ignore this growing group at their peril.

Long story short, the mood in January may feel less like 2009 than 1995, when Republican majorities worked well with a Democratic president to pass landmark legislation on welfare reform.

This doesn't mean immigration reform will be easy. Far from it. Republicans aren't going to sign onto a pre-cooked Democratic deal. Trying to box them in with one -- as the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did repeatedly this year -- may work as a political gambit, but it won't produce new law.

Nothing will happen unless Democrats are willing to swallow hard and accept provisions, particularly enforcement provisions, that they would have rejected out of hand just a few weeks ago. And the House Judiciary Committee, now controlled by immigration hardliners Lamar Smith of Texas, and Steve King of Iowa, will be a particularly difficult battleground.

But that doesn't mean there's no hope. Lawmakers can't avoid the issue entirely. If nothing else, they will be under pressure to strengthen enforcement, both on the border and in the workplace.

And with the right spirit of compromise, that impulse could lead to something broader. Members of both parties will be focusing on the economy. Jobs will be a universal theme. And as the economy starts to grow, it will get harder to ignore the role that immigrants play in creating jobs -- not just with innovation and business start-ups, but also by providing a low-end labor force that supports U.S. workers on the middle rungs of the job ladder.

The spirit of compromise? This week, it sounds unlikely. But it's too soon to write off this Congress. Things could look different come January, and in the cold light of 2012.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tamar Jacoby.