Of all the issues that came before the Senate while I was there, none stirred the emotional pot as much as immigration. It was the only time in my career when the phone traffic became so heavy that it jammed the system, shutting it down.
Over 90 percent of the callers objected to President W. George Bush's immigration proposal, so one might think that a majority of Utahns were against it. However, those answering the phones soon began to recognize repeat callers citing the same arguments. They were not representative of a wide segment of Utah opinion but rather a relatively small group of very determined advocates committed to anonomously dialing our offices again and again. The business, religious and community leaders who outlined their views to me in person recognized that President Bush's experience as governor of Texas had given him a realistic understanding of the dimensions of the problem and were strongly in favor of the measure.
It didn't pass. For years, the reservoir of bitterness that lingered after the vote prevented any action on immigration. Now, however, the issue is back in the news, and arguments that were made in favor of the earlier bill are very close to those being advanced for the current one by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as he leads the negotiating team for Senate Republicans and gains support from many who had opposed Bush.
What has changed the atmosphere? Some election results.
George W. Bush got 47 percent of the Hispanic vote; Mitt Romney, 27 percent. It may not be fair, but the rhetoric surrounding the immigration issue in the last six years has been interpreted as a statement that Republicans do not like Hispanics. A majority of voters are offended by that idea.
Rubio has spoken out because he understands that the party needs to take control of this issue. Media figures who claim to be the watchdogs of Republicans, who see their job as keeping the party "pure," have emerged as the primary spokesmen on the subject. That should not be, if only for purely practical reasons. A 20 percent listener rating can make a radio or TV host rich, but a political candidate has to have 50 percent to win an election. Rubio is telling the media figures to step aside and let those whose mandate comes from voters rather than listeners do their job.
To those who cry, "amnesty!" he points out that failure to pass a bill has given illegal aliens "de facto amnesty" because they have been able to stay here without paying any fines. To those who insist that the border be "secured" before immigration reform can take place, he points out that billions have already been spent on that project and it is time to stop using it as an excuse for further delay. To those who claim that he is simply pandering to Hispanics, he points out that there is strong support for his proposals among non-Hispanics on humanitarian grounds — "Don't break up families."
I've not met Rubio, but applaud him for straight talk to the tea party by a politician they have claimed as one of their own. The question I hear most often from Utahns is, "Why can't members of Congress work together and get things done?" Immigration is a perfect opportunity for them to show that they can. Sen. Rubio and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., are about as far apart as two senators can get, ideologically, but the fact that they are able to talk civily about an issue as important as this one indicates that the ice barrier between the parties may finally be beginning to thaw.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.