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May 27, 2017

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Migration reform's political promise

"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 on Jan. 29, he praised the cooperative initiative of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to update our tangled and disorderly immigration laws, regulations and practices.

The president spoke in Las Vegas, a rapidly growing city with a large immigrant population, both legal and illegal. Substantial numbers of immigrants work in the hotel and related service industries, one of the few sectors of the American 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, lawmakers have emphasized, 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, a maverick often at odds with party conservatives, has long been interested in the subject. He and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts 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 the third-ranking leader of his party, 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 in the U.S. is growing rapidly, and while heavily Democratic also shows variability. In 2012, the Obama-Biden ticket received an estimated 71 percent of the votes of that ethnic group.

By contrast, in 2004 the Bush-Cheney ticket secured an estimated 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, a modern record for Republicans. The Bush family sponsors a long-term sustained effort to court this population, beginning with the presidential campaigns of George H.W. Bush. Some Republicans believe the traditional conservative Catholic outlook of many Hispanics provides an opportunity for recruitment, despite current voting trends.

Tocqueville is quoted early in "A Nation of Immigrants" by John F. Kennedy, a book published posthumously shortly after his administration submitted immigration reform legislation to Congress. The bill significantly opening access opportunities was successfully passed by successor President Lyndon B. Johnson.

"A Nation of Immigrants" emphasizes the exceptional diversity of the U.S. populations. The point is made early that the only indigenous residents of the country were the Native Americans who greeted the first Europeans to land.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of "After the Cold War." Email

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