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Immigration reform at risk, not over principles but over pennies

The Washington Post reports that the bipartisan Senate deal on immigration reform is now at risk. At a minimum, the Senate bill may not be unveiled in April, as had been expected.

What’s the problem? Have Republicans come to understand that it is wrong to provide a pathway to citizenship for those who, for years, have flouted American law? Has the irrationality of creating 10 million or so underclass voters, few of whom can be expected to vote for a conservative party, finally dawned on conservative Republicans? Or have the two Parties reached on impasse on the issue of border security?

The answer is: none of the above. The hang-up is over work visas. Big business, represented by the Republicans, wants to give temporary work visas to 400,000 workers a year at low wages. Labor, represented by the Democrats, wants fewer visas and lower wages.

No one should be surprised that this economic dispute appears to be the major obstacle to bipartisan agreement. The same issue is widely considered the deal-breaker during the last run at immigration reform in 2007. That year, in the words of the Post, Sen. Obama “eyeing union support for a White House bid,” supported an amendment eliminating the guest worker provision, the adoption of which helped sink the legislation.

I’m on the Republicans side of the dispute over work visas. But the real lesson here, as in 2007, is that Republican politicians care, above all, about protecting the interests of business. They offer lip service to respect for the law, border security, and preserving conservatism as a strong force in our politics. But when put to the test, their real business is providing service to business.

By the way, and for it’s worth, I suspect that the dispute over work visas will be resolved. Disputes over dollars and cents usually are. Disputes over principles often aren’t. But the Republican establishment isn’t worried about principles or about the long-term future of conservatism.

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