There's a fundamental conflict at the heart of the Senate debate over the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill. Most Republicans believe a policy to integrate 11 million currently illegal immigrants into American society must be conditioned on stronger border security and internal enforcement. Most Democrats don't. At bottom, that's what the fight is about.
Most Republicans believe security must come before integration, in one of two ways. Some believe enhanced security must be in place -- not a plan, but a reality -- before the 11 million can be granted temporary legal status. (In the world of the Senate, "temporary" means six to 10 years.) It's probably fair to say that a majority of the Republican voting base holds that opinion.
Other Republicans believe enhanced security must be in place -- again, reality, not a plan -- before the legalized immigrants can move on, after 10 years, to permanent legal resident status, signified by a green card, and ultimately on to citizenship.
What unites the two camps is the conviction that enhanced security must actually be in place before today's illegal immigrants are allowed to stay in the U.S. for the rest of their lives.
Many Democrats pay lip service to the idea; after all, it's pretty popular not just with Republican voters but with Democrats and independents, too. But they don't see enhanced security as something that has to happen before immigrants may move forward.
If there were any doubts that many Democrats do not support enforcement before integration, those doubts were dispelled recently by Sen. Richard Durbin, a leading Democrat on the Gang of Eight. "We have de-linked a pathway to citizenship and border enforcement," Durbin told National Journal. And Sen. Charles Schumer, another leading Democrat in the Gang, called a Republican attempt to strengthen the link between enforcement and the path to citizenship "a nonstarter."
As Democrats see it, reform must move today's illegal immigrants to temporary legal status, and then to permanent legal status, and then to citizenship without any major obstacles along the way. A requirement that any of those steps be dependent on specific security and enforcement improvements is a nonstarter not just for Schumer but for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and most other Democrats.