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Why The Immigration Fight Seems Like The NBA Finals

The final outcome of the congressional fight over immigration will be as unpredictable as the result of Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
Lynne Sladky
The final outcome of the congressional fight over immigration will be as unpredictable as the result of Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

Maybe Game 6 of the NBA Finals has something to teach us about how to watch the immigration debate now taking place in Congress.

Game 6, of course, was the instant sports classic in which the defending champion Miami Heat made an improbable comeback to tie their series with the San Antonio Spurs, three games apiece.

What appeared early in the fourth quarter to be a likely Heat defeat not only had many Miami fans leaving the arena prematurely, but had NBA officials making courtside preparations for the presentation of the championship trophy to the Spurs. Oops, as Spurs fan Texas Gov. Rick Perry might say.

Just like the Heat-Spurs series, in which the momentum has swung first to one team and then the other, the immigration fight in Congress has also seen the fortunes of those on both sides rise and fall.

One day, the lawmakers for whom the priority is the eventual legalization of those in the U.S. unlawfully seem to have a step on their opponents. The next day, circumstances seem to favor those for whom border enforcement trumps everything else.

Thursday, for instance, seemed to be a win for those hoping to get an immigration bill out of the Senate that both Democrats and a significant number of Republicans could support. A tough border enforcement amendment by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas — which supporters of overhauling immigration described as a poison pill meant to defeat the bill — failed.

Meanwhile, two Republican senators, Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota, announced they had drafted a border security amendment requiring a "border surge" of 20,000 or more Border Patrol agents and technology, including drones, that appeared poised to win strong bipartisan support in the Senate.

That kind of backing wouldn't necessarily be a guarantee of success for a comprehensive bill in the GOP-led House, but it arguably would enhance its chances.

Only two days earlier, opponents of a comprehensive immigration bill seemed to notch a win when Speaker John Boehner said he wouldn't bring to a floor vote an immigration bill not supported by a majority of his fellow Republicans — meaning he would follow the so-called Hastert Rule.

Given the resistance of many House Republicans and the party's base to any legislation that would give legal status to people in the U.S. illegally, that seemed like a very bad omen for the legislation's future.

Boehner, however, left open the tantalizing possibility that stronger border enforcement provisions in the Senate's bill could change the dynamics.

If a comprehensive immigration bill is to win House approval this year, it's clear Boehner will be the force who makes it happen, like his fellow Ohioan, the Heat's LeBron James, did in the fourth quarter of Game 6.

On the same day of Boehner's Hastert Rule reaffirmation, when the situation looked bleaker for the pro-immigration overhaul forces, the Congressional Budget Office issued a report that amounted to a 3-point shot, like that Ray Allen long ball in the waning moments of Game 6, for those supporting a comprehensive bill. The nonpartisan CBO reported that the immigration legislation would reduce federal deficits by $197 billion over 10 years, and $700 billion over two decades.

Maybe some really smart people somewhere saw that coming, but it seemed to take much of official Washington by surprise. It gave the side pushing for a comprehensive bill a powerful lift.

Before it's all said and done, supporters and foes of comprehensive immigration reform are likely to have many more wins and losses.

But just like the NBA Finals have shown, it's probably wisest to wait until the final buzzer, or the final votes in the case of the immigration legislation, before we decide we know how it will all end and start heading for the exits.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.