Two Americas

The apparent demise of comprehensive immigration reform this year gives further evidence of a sharp political divide, revealing two starkly different American viewpoints, with little room and even less willingness to compromise.Listening to the debate on immigration reform in the Senate and House is like watching two parallel universes. In real terms, it reflects two Americas.

House GOP leaders made clear this week after a closed-door session with their members that they will have none of the Senate-passed immigration reform, which they branded as "fatally flawed."  The main flaw is a path to citizenship for 11 million or more undocumented workers and their families living in the United States.

Republicans talked about President Obama and his predecessors failing to secure U.S. borders against illegal immigrants. They deplored lax prosecution of illegal immigrants, notwithstanding the higher number of deportations carried out during Obama's presidency. They expressed support for comprehensive immigration reform, but one GOP congressman described it as sifting through the millions of people seeking to immigrate and selecting the applicants who will "produce more tax revenue than they consume."

So much for the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

Political analysts have contrasted the views of Senate Republicans, such as former GOP presidential candidate John McCain and potential future GOP president candidate Marco Rubio, with House Republicans. Senate Republicans see the national electorate sliding away from their party as the percentage of Latino and other minority voters climbs. Many House Republicans hold districts that are GOP strongholds and the only political danger they face is a challenge from more conservative candidates.

But the political analysis doesn't quite explain the inexplicable of what to do with 11 million or more undocumented people who live, work, go to school and start businesses here and who consider America their home. The Senate immigration bill creates what by any account would be viewed as an arduous — and expensive — route to citizenship. The House Republican approach is to denounce their presence, but offer little tangible policy on what to do now that they are here.

At a minimum, the truculent House rebuke of bipartisan, Senate-passed immigration reform puts a damper on any hope of legislation passing Congress this year or even this term. House Republicans appear content to enter the 2014 election cycle inveighing against illegal immigration, soft borders and a misdirected Senate bill.

While this may prove an acceptable political outcome — Democrats can blast Republican intransigence; Republicans can recoil at legitimizing illegal acts — the growing U.S. Latino community can only be puzzled and angry at the continued standoff. For them, it isn't an abstract, intellectual issue. It is an issue that often involves their family, friends and coworkers, who live under an uncertain shadow.

If immigration falls by the wayside, it will join gun control, jobs legislation, the farm bill and a grand budget bargain on the political scrapheap, again evidence of two starkly different perceptions, at least in Congress, of what America wants and needs.