Senator Charles Schumer of New York has never lacked the stomach for a fight, but this time he has picked himself a doozy.
Schumer now heads the subcommittee on immigration in the Senate, replacing ailing Senator Edward Kennedy, and will hold the first meeting on a new comprehensive immigration reform bill this week.
There is no more convoluted and difficult issue than immigration reform, one guaranteed to raise hackles, encourage grandstanding and shed more heat than light by the time the debate is over.
Schumer is completely aware of all that, and the sad recent history of attempts to reform immigration law. Yet he is now standing calmly in the spotlight ready to do his damndest to get a bill passed.
For that he deserves the praise and support of all who want immigration reform. There are many other issues Schumer might have seen fit to tackle, but he chose perhaps the toughest one on the docket.
That is typical of the man who once ran as rank outsider against incumbent Senator Al’ D’Amato and defeated him, and in more recent times has delivered a Democratic Senate majority against all the odds despite Republicans holding the White House.
So underestimate Schumer at your peril. The New York senator has forgotten more about achieving political victories than most politicians ever learn. Clearly he sees an opportunity to make his mark, and Schumer does not do kamikaze politics.
He has been a great friend to the Irish on this issue and has appeared at several Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform rallies. In many ways he says his intense interest on the issue stems from going to those rallies, where he saw first hand how a great New York community can be decimated by a system that is palpably unfair and utterly out of date.
Burt Schumer will also lay it on the line to immigrant lobby groups that if he manages to win legislation that will legalize those here illegally, that the line will be drawn at that point.
He foresees a national identification card that will be impossible to duplicate, and a strict application of immigration laws that will ensure that the system cannot be gamed.
He will also hopefully point out the incredible benefits of making the 12 million or so who are here undocumented legal. The money that will pour in from paid taxes, from fees to become legal and from the ability to open bank accounts and not have to ship all money home to their native lands will be a huge factor.
What Schumer must avoid is allowing the reform drive to become a debate solely about amnesty, which is the key word that anti-immigrant forces managed to plant in the media last time around.
The ability to cloak such a complex issue in a single loaded term managed to scupper that bill. Schumer, however, will be far too clever to fall for that play again.
The good news is that immigration reform is now on the front burner again. The even better news is that a senior politician of the caliber of Schumer is willing to put his political clout behind a decent and fair reform of the issue.
The fight ahead will be long and tense, with many pitfalls and victories.
However, with Schumer at the helm and President Barack Obama promising strong presidential support there is definitely a new era dawning. Suddenly things are looking up again on immigration reform.
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