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The US immigration bill and Middle East

The reason why immigration reform is not easy is that while Republican Party leaders understand the realities, many of their rank-and-file voters do not

Gulf News

Should readers in the UAE, or elsewhere in the Gulf, care whether Washington can pass an immigration bill?

On one level, the obvious answer is “yes”. The Gulf has always had its share of expatriates for whom a move to the US offers professional or personal opportunity or a chance to strengthen family ties. This is just as true for cab drivers and waiters as it is for bankers and corporate managers.

From a different perspective, it is equally obvious that the answer is “no”. Listen to America’s immigration debate for five minutes and it becomes clear that, at least among Americans themselves, the issue focuses mostly on Hispanics. Green cards and eventual citizenship for people currently in the country illegally, and security issues along America’s border with Mexico, dominate the debate.

If it becomes law, the massive immigration overhaul that the US Senate is debating will surely impact the life of any UAE-based expatriate who may hope to move to America. Right now, however, the chances of that happening remain slim. This brings us to the real reason why the immigration debate merits the attention of readers half a world away: It has become a case study in Washington dysfunction; an example of why important things cannot get done these days, even when both political parties want them to happen.

On one level, immigration reform ought to be easy. US President Barack Obama wants it because he promised an overhaul of the immigration system during both of his campaigns. Though they continued to back Obama last year, Hispanic leaders went out of their way to remind him of his failure to deliver during his first term and to insist that things change once the election was out of the way.

Little hope of winning

The Republican leadership wants it because support for their party among Hispanics has steadily eroded over the last 20 years. This reached a crisis point last autumn when Hispanics voted nearly three-to-one for Obama over Mitt Romney.

At 17 per cent of the US population, Hispanics are America’s largest minority group. This number is growing and tends to be concentrated in the states where presidential elections are won. Simply put, the Republicans have little hope of winning the presidency unless they improve their performance among Hispanics. That, in turn, is unlikely to happen unless the party can learn to discuss immigration issues in ways that do not come across as racist to large swathes of the population.

The reason why immigration reform is not easy — and may prove to be impossible — is that while Republican Party leaders understand these realities, many of their rank-and-file voters do not. To make matters worse, that hard line stance is supported by many (perhaps most) of the party’s members in the House of Representatives.

To get around this reality, proponents of immigration reform hope to pass a bill out of the Senate with a huge majority that will include a significant number of conservative Republicans. The theory is that this will pressure conservative House members to support the bill, though that logic appears more and more dubious with each passing day.

For Democrats, the problem is that in seeking conservative support, the bill’s sponsors have agreed to a growing list of right-wing provisions as it has moved through the Senate. The result is that, among progressives, the bill now increasingly looks like a punitive border security measure rather than a broad-minded solution to the country’s immigration problems. That has led to complaints on the left that it is increasingly unworthy of Democratic support.

Unable to control the caucus

Add in the idea that many Republicans (especially in the House) are loathe to vote for anything Obama supports and it is hard to see how this ends well for either party.

If the bill dies, Obama will be criticised for not having tried hard enough (this may or may not be true, but that will almost certainly be the overall public impression). Republicans will be criticised for once again having allowed their party’s most strident voices to dominate the debate on an important national issue. House Speaker John Boehner will have reinforced the view that he is a weak leader unable to control his caucus.

Thus, will Washington have proved that it cannot get important things done even when leaders on both sides of the aisle genuinely want to do so?

That should worry readers in the UAE, not just because immigrating to the US is likely to remain a years-long Kafkaesque obstacle course, but because of what it says about America’s ability to tackle big issues where the impact on the Middle East is more direct and US leadership is desperately required.

Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.