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United States

Demographics force US immigration reform

Once an issue that polarized the US, immigration reform now enjoys growing bipartisan support. Democrats and Republicans are negotiating a path to legalization, and perhaps citizenship, for 11 million illegal immigrants.

With Congress on recess for spring break, US President Barack Obama has pushed the House and Senate to finish the job of drafting comprehensive immigration reform by April, calling on both political parties to capitalize on recent bipartisan progress toward a deal.

"We are making progress. But we've go to finish the job, because this issue is not new," the president said recently during a citizenship ceremony at the White House for 28 new Americans. "Everybody pretty much knows what's broken; everybody knows how to fix it."

After years of polarization over how to deal with America's 11 million unauthorized immigrants, support for a bipartisan deal has gained momentum since President Obama's victory in the November presidential election.

Republican Senator Rand Paul - a key figure in the conservative Tea Party movement - has spoken out in favor of legalization, revealing a potential game-changing shift within the Republican Party in favor of immigration reform.

"Prudence, compassion and thrift all point us toward the same goal: bringing these workers out of the shadows and into becoming and being taxpaying members of society," Paul told the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

He was just the latest member of the Republican Party, which took a hard-line toward illegal immigrants during the presidential campaign, to signal an opening for a bipartisan deal.

Both Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Republican House Speaker John Boehner have expressed support for the negotiations of the so-called "Gang of Eight," a bipartisan group of senators hammering out immigration reform legislation. Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer has said that the group is "very close to agreement."

"Nobody would have ever anticipated the discussion to be starting at a new starting point, that key Republicans are on board for a comprehensive overhaul and for a legalization program," Audrey Singer, an expert on immigration with the Brookings Institute, told DW.

Rebranding the Republican Party

In the aftermath of their defeat in the November presidential election, some key Republicans began to critically examine the rightward shift that the party had taken under the influence of the Tea Party movement.

United States Senator Rand Paul (Republican of Kentucky) makes remarks at CPAC 2013 At the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland on Thursday, March 14, 2013. Credit: Ron Sachs / CNP

Senator Paul's support for reform could signal shifting attitudes among conservative Republicans

The Republican National Committee, the party's leadership body, commissioned a five-person panel to make recommendations on how the GOP could broaden its appeal. The panel's report encouraged Republicans to reach out to America's growing minority groups -the gay and lesbian, African American, Asian American and above all Latino communities.

According the US Census Bureau, some 50 percent of newborns are minorities, with minority groups expected to represent a majority of the overall US population by 2043.

In response to America's changing demographics, the RNC report explicitly called on the party to embrace comprehensive immigration reform. Such reform was once, and by some conservatives is still, considered amnesty by the Republican Party.

"The Republican Party awakened to this new demographic reality and the future, and looking at their own future in terms of 'how are we going to survive as a party, we need to appeal to this growing sector of the population,'" Clara Rodriguez, a professor of sociology at Fordham University, told DW.

In the past, many Republicans justified their opposition to a legalization program on the grounds that the federal government was not doing its job of enforcing immigration law. But in the second term of the Bush administration and now under the Obama administration, deportations of illegal immigrants have jumped precipitously. In 2012, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported a record 409,849 people.

"It's going to be much more difficult to make a legitimate argument today, relative to 2007, that says that the government is not serious about enforcing immigration laws," Demetrios Papademetriou, the president of the Migration Policy Institute, told DW.

Business and labor lock horns

Some details from the Gang of Eight's negotiations have been leaked to the public. The New York Times has reported that a deal would offer illegal immigrants a permanent resident visa - a green card - in a decade, and then the possibility of citizenship after three more years.

The deal would also establish a temporary guest worker program. But the US business community and organized labor have proven unable to agree on how many people should be issued temporary work visas and how much they should be paid.

epa03633285 Supporters of immigration reform hold a rally outside the US Capitol in Washington DC, USA, 20 March 2013. A bipartisan team of senators are working to introduce immigration reform legislation in April 2013. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Supporters of immigration reform have held demonstrations outside the US Capitol

The AFL-CIO, America's largest labor federation, has accused the US Camber of Commerce of trying to use the immigration debate to drive down wages by gaining access to a large pool of cheap labor. The chamber, for its part, has said the business community does not seek to pay foreign workers any less than American workers.  

"Organized labor is protective of both immigrant and native born workers and is wary of long-term, large-scale temporary worker programs," Singer said. "Business on the other hand is interested in filling in gaps quickly to stay competitive and to have access to workers when they need it, so they're much more interested in expanding temporary workers."

According to Papademetriou, labor and business do agree that immigrant workers should be able to receive permanent residency at some point and switch jobs. But whether or not that can form the starting point of a potential agreement remains to be seen.

"The devil is always in the details," he said.

DW.DE