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For Republicans, immigration can be a tricky affair

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US breakthrough on immigration reform

Bipartisan coalition of US senators creates a set of four principles, including a 'path to citizenship' for illegal immigrants.

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WASHINGTON: Don't get too excited. Yes, Barack Obama made a speech in Nevada on Tuesday applauding a bipartisan group of senators who had the day before announced they had found common ground on immigration reform.

Yes, reform of the type they advocate is good policy, perhaps even brave policy.

No, it is not a sign the fever in Washington has broken and that Congress has started to function as it should.

Reform supporters ... Members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) United Service Workers West chant before a public viewing of President Barack Obama's speech on immigration.

Reform supporters ... Members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) United Service Workers West chant before a public viewing of President Barack Obama's speech on immigration. Photo: Reuters

There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in America. Most are from Mexico, many have been here for more than a decade, many were brought by their parents as young children.

Many have been to school and college here, and while they pay tax (such as sales tax) and may not (legally) work, they are vital to some agricultural, service and manufacturing industries.

They may not vote.

For a generation, Washington has looked for ways to invite this group in from the cold without encouraging further undocumented immigration.

Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush attempted reform, but many Republican candidates found anti-immigration populism easier and safer than addressing the complicated problem.

That all ended on November 7, when Obama won more than 70 per cent of the Hispanic vote.

And guess what?

Research showed the voting Hispanic population - even conservative Cubans - did not appreciate the ugly immigration tough-talk that marked the Republican primaries last year. ''This is a defining moment for the Republican Party,'' the GOP strategist Leslie Sanchez told the Washington Post. ''If Republicans don't heed this warning, we are certainly in danger of becoming politically irrelevant at a national level.''

The DC establishment has heeded the warning, and the sight of the party elder statesman John McCain on a stage beside one of its potential future presidents, Marco Rubio (a Cuban-American from Florida), and key members of the Democratic Senate majority is evidence of that.

This is also why the working group laced the proposals with conservative catnip. Yes, there would be a ''pathway to citizenship'' for those who arrived without documents, but they would be at the back of the queue, behind those who arrived legally. There would be no ''pathway'' introduced until the border was strengthened with more border agents, increased use of drones and other surveillance equipment, and completion of an entry-exit system to track visa holders.

Finally they would establish a commission of governors, attorneys-general and community leaders from border states to vet the changes. It is this last caveat that has the potential to derail the reform. While the Republican Party's DC establishment might realise it can't win the White House without winning over Hispanics through immigration reform, many of its candidates on the border - and in other hard right districts - can't even win a primary without refusing to support such reform.

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