For a while there back in 2007, Georgia senators Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss seemed as if they were trying to gin up the courage to vote in favor of a controversial immigration-reform package then being championed by their fellow Republican, President George W. Bush.
But they did not. In the end, outrage among the Republican base here at home frightened both men off, convincing them to cast votes that helped kill the legislation. However, the problem that legislation attempted to address has not gone away. In political terms, moral terms and economic terms, it looms larger than ever.
Today, six years later, a Democrat sits in the White House, thanks in part to a 71 percent-27 percent Democratic advantage among Hispanic voters in the 2012 election. In 2004, the Democratic margin among Hispanics had been a mere nine points. The margin among Hispanics is approaching the advantage held by Democrats among black voters, and the way the Republicans are behaving, it may very well get there.
Today, six years later, Hispanic children occupy 16 percent of the classroom seats in the 20-county metro Atlanta region, up from just 6 percent in 2000, according to statistics released by the Atlanta Regional Commission. That’s an increase of more than 100,000 Hispanic students, many if not most of whom will be citizens eligible to vote when they reach age 18 regardless of whether federal law is changed. (White students, by the way, now comprise 37 percent of the metro region’s student body, down from 52 percent in 2000.)
And because they and others faltered on their first chance, six years later Isakson and Chambliss again face a test of courage, conviction and compassion, with another comprehensive immigration reform bill coming up for a Senate vote probably before the Fourth of July. The bill was drafted by an unofficial committee of eight senators, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and three other Republicans. But according to Rubio, it is still short of the 60 votes that will be needed to block a Republican filibuster.
For Chambliss, the political situation has changed. In 2007, he was facing re-election, and back then even his tentative suggestion of openness to an immigration deal got him booed at that year’s state GOP convention. This time around, he has already announced he will not seek re-election, perhaps in part out of frustration with his party’s increasing extremism on immigration, the budget and other issues.
Isakson doesn’t face re-election until 2016, which also gives him some insulation. But in a telling sign of where the GOP base is at, every major announced Republican candidate to replace Chambliss has pledged to oppose comprehensive immigration reform. Other GOP officeseekers are taking a similar stance. State Rep. Ed Lindsey, running for the GOP nomination in the 11th congressional district, has even written a letter to Isakson and Chambliss urging them to vote no.
In that letter, Lindsey claims that the proposed reform bill does too little to tighten border security. However, he also makes it clear that his real concerns lie elsewhere. Lindsey makes it plain and he puts it in boldface:
”We should oppose a pathway to citizenship for anyone who willingly and knowingly comes into our country illegally.”
It doesn’t matter that the primary path to citizenship in the Senate bill would take 13 years to travel and can be completed only if you stay out of serious legal trouble, and only if you are never unemployed for more than 60 consecutive days in those 13 years, and only if you came here prior to 2012, and only if you can document that your income level has been at least 25 percent above the poverty line for all that time. For Lindsey and others, the answer is still no.
So Isakson and Chambliss have a choice. If they say no once again, dooming reform chances for a long time to come, what will their country, state and party look like in another six years? When their careers as statesmen are assessed, will they be remembered as leaders who took a risk and embraced the future, or will they be recalled as more modern equivalents of men such as segregationist Herman Talmadge, who tainted their careers by trying to preserve an amoral system that they knew or should have known was wrong?
I have hope, but not optimism.