When immigration reform last made an appearance on Capitol Hill, in the summer of 2007, the flood of phone calls from opponents of the legislation was so great, it temporarily shut down the congressional switchboard.
The bill's supporters, an unlikely alliance of Republicans and Democrats from President Bush and John McCain to Ted Kennedy and Harry Reid, had spent months searching for consensus. But the furious, well-organized response from conservatives opposed to "amnesty" for illegal immigrants left them short of the 60 votes needed to bring the bill to a final vote in the Senate.
In the end, a small majority of senators—mostly Republicans but including some Democrats—voted against the measure to toughen border enforcement, crack down on employers of undocumented workers, and create a pathway to citizenship for the country's 12 million illegal immigrants. "I had hoped for a bipartisan accomplishment," Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader, said after the bill was tabled. "What we got was a bipartisan defeat."
Undeterred, only 18 months later, would-be immigration reformers are gearing up to try again. Shrugging off concerns about how the issue will fare politically during an economic downturn, they are pressing President Obama to keep a campaign pledge to tackle the issue in his first year. "It's never a perfect time to do this," says Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation working to change immigration law. "But at some point, you have to bite the bullet and say, 'This is the time.' "
On the face of it, what was politically impossible then does not seem quite so unattainable anymore. If a bill is introduced in the next year, it will be the first time since 1965 that major immigration legislation is considered without Republicans in control of any branch of government. Reformers not only have a popular president on their side and a Senate Democratic majority hovering just below 60 votes, they also have some highly motivated allies. Harry Reid, the Senate's Democratic majority leader, is up for re-election next year in Nevada, a state that is 25 percent Latino. Former presidential candidate John McCain, meanwhile, has reportedly returned to the Senate determined to revisit one of his signature issues.
"Even though there was so much bloodshed on the Senate floor last time, there do seem to be some willing warriors ready to take it back on," says Angela Kelley, director of the Immigration Policy Center in Washington. Polls show that nearly 70 percent of voters favor some path to citizenship for illegal immigrants if they pay a penalty, pay taxes, and learn English.
Questions still linger, of course, around how much support a renewed reform effort can expect from conservatives in both parties with unemployment rising. Michael Steele, the newly elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, has insisted that his party will not be softening its opposition to "amnesty." Reformers, though, are pressing on with their outreach efforts. If history is any guide, Congress may want to get ready for a few phone calls.