Haley Barbour, former governor of Mississippi, former head of the Republican National Committee, now a political fixer and influential voice in GOP circles, says he first became seriously interested in immigration policy after Hurricane Katrina.
Thousands of homes in Mississippi were destroyed, "down to the slab," Barbour said at a recent conference on immigration hosted by National Journal in Washington. Construction workers were overwhelmed; many were homeless themselves. And then, almost out of nowhere, came help.
"We were blessed with a huge influx of Spanish speakers, and I'm sure a lot of them weren't in this country legally," Barbour said. "I don't know where we would be in Mississippi if they had not come."
The "Spanish speakers" were willing to live in terrible conditions while at work building new homes. The experience led Barbour -- who favors raising the number of high-skilled immigrants admitted to the United States -- to realize that "there is also essential lesser-skilled labor that we need."
The National Journal panel reflected much of the discussion about immigration reform. Of eight speakers, Republicans and Democrats, seven favored comprehensive reform along the lines of the Senate "Gang of Eight" bill. That's what passes for balance in Washington today.
The level of agreement was so high that some pronounced the immigration policy debate to be "over." All that is left is for lawmakers to find a political agreement to enact universally accepted principles.
That view, it turned out, was too much even for a former member of the Obama administration's economic team who supports reform. "There are a lot of people who believe ... that immigrant competition has hurt them in the economy," said Jared Bernstein, once an economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. "We can't leave those people out of this debate because (the Congressional Budget Office) and lots of other economic analysis, including much of my own, has found otherwise. The policy debate is far from over."
Much of the discussion focused on skilled workers -- immigrants in the so-called H-1B and STEM categories, whose numbers Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other tech titans would like to increase. It's a given among reformers that the U.S. needs to admit more of them, but Bernstein reminded the panelists that there remains a lot of slack in the American labor market.