Orrin Hatch hasn't spent 36 years in the United States Senate without learning how to read the writing on the walls. And the polls. And the letters from his most influential constituents (i.e. campaign donors).
So when Utah's senior U.S. senator says the time for a comprehensive immigration reform package is now, he speaks not only as an expert who is well versed in the intricacies of the issue, but also as a savvy politician who knows when a rare window of opportunity has opened. And how soon it may close again.
Hatch has seen immigration reform plans come and go over the years. He opposed versions favored by President Reagan in 1986 (which passed) and by President George W. Bush in 2006 (which failed) because, in Hatch's view, both were too lenient in offering those who had already come to America without going through the proper legal channels a chance to remain and get on a path to citizenship.
At the same time, Hatch has championed sometimes reforms to offer immigrants who were brought here as children a chance to win legal status by going to college or joining the military, as well as a new set of rules for helping agricultural operations get the seasonal labor they need.
And now, Hatch says he sees what many others have seen. There are an estimated 11 million human beings who are living, working, going to school, buying things and paying taxes who continue to live lives completely or partially in the shadows. It would be neither humane nor practical to send them home, especially when a great many of them came here as children and truly have no home other than the U.S.A.
The bipartisan immigration package that is being officially rolled out before the Senate would offer a pathway to legal residency and then, after a process that could take 13 years, citizenship. Hatch rightly notes that such a long wait hardly gives anyone an unfair advantage over those who have entered, or sought to enter, the United States legally.
Hatch rightly sees a confluence of events that ought not be wasted. The drubbing that Republicans took in many places in the 2012 elections, especially amongst Hispanic voters, means that comprehensive reform is something that many in the GOP wish to accomplish, and to be seen accomplishing.
More specifically, Hatch is in the first year of what he has said will be his final six-year term. Leading the way toward reform and providing inspiration and political cover for other senators to follow is something that is both the right thing for Hatch, and politically cost-free.
It is an opportunity Hatch is right to seize.