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Guest editorial: Immigration bill could be hallmark of Leahy's career

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Posted on August 1, 2013 |
By Emerson Lynn



The Senate recently passed the most comprehensive reform of the nation’s immigration system in a generation, and much of the credit is being bestowed on Vermont’s Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate’s longest-serving member.

It was Mr. Leahy who was able to use his seniority to guide the rancorous process toward a successful conclusion, and it was his belief in a bipartisan course that held the disparate coalitions together. He also is being given high praise from proponents and opponents for his commitment to an open process that allowed both sides to express their thoughts and to test their ideas.

As has been noted, he had to stifle his own predilections to ensure that the bill would gather the votes necessary to overcome a filibuster. He succeeded. The final vote was 68-32.

This is how the legislative process is supposed to work.

The legislation provides a way toward full citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers. It speeds that path for famers — good for Vermont — and for the so-called Dreamers, the immigrants who came as children with their parents. The massive piece of legislation includes a variety of reforms to the immigration and detention processes and addresses the concerns of southern border states by providing billions of dollars in security and employment verification systems.

The bill approved by the Senate ranks among the most significant in recent memory. Apart from the details, it serves two critical purposes: First, it provides the path forward for citizenship, which brings into the light a shadow population that needs tending and second, it provides the potential for an enormous lift to our long-term outlook for continued prosperity. This nation was built upon the power of immigrants and it will need their energy and drive to continue to prosper. It’s this diversification that has made us the nation we are.

Very seldom is legislation passed that holds such continued promise.

The challenge is that Congress is beset with a profound dysfunction. The Senate’s accomplishment needs to be matched with a similar effort by the House. If the House falls, the Senate’s work was for naught.

Speaker of the House John Boehner has said the House will not take up the Senate bill, that it would treat the issue in its own way, and in its own time. The House, controlled by the Republicans, is not a hospitable place for advocates of immigration reform.

It’s in the House that we see the difference between a body that has been gerrymandered and one that can’t be. In the Senate, each state has two senators and each must be reelected in a statewide vote. They must appeal to the broad swath of the public, which militates against extremism and toward consensus. In the House, the districts have been circumscribed so tightly that Republicans and Democrats run in districts that are almost wholly controlled by their parties.

If Republican congressmen represent predominately Republican districts then the need for consensus evaporates. They don’t need moderate Republicans or conservative Democrats to win reelection. They only need Republicans, which pushes the needle toward the party’s more conservative end.

That’s what we have in today’s House of Representatives. Hardline Republicans can be extreme without fear of losing the next election. Far left Democrats can do the same. We’ve gerrymandered the legislative process into a cacophonous stalemate.

Leahy’s goal in the Senate was to produce a bill that would attract overwhelming support. The magic number was 70. They got 68. The thought was that if the bill were overwhelmingly supported, the public would become more engaged and the House would feel the pressure to respond in similar fashion.

If the immigration bill has any chance of success in the House that’s exactly what will need to happen. The public will need to respond with a full-throated advocacy in favor of reform.

If not, the prospects in the House are less than hopeful.

As for the Senate’s efforts, and Leahy’s in particular, we have every reason to be proud. It as the right thing to do. In the moment, it gives us hope as a nation. It will be remembered as one of the defining marks of Leah’s long and distinguished legislative career.

— Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger

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