House Republicans Get Ready to Move on Immigration Reform

At a retreat of the Republican Conference at the end of January, Republican leaders released a set of “standards” for immigration reform. The standards acknowledge that the immigration system must be fixed, and Republicans will devise solutions through a “step-by-step” process. Their vision includes putting border security and interior enforcement first, implementing an entry-exit visa tracking system, a universal electronic employment verification system, reforms to the legal immigration system that include more visas for skilled workers and a workable temporary worker program, and some process for allowing the undocumented to live in the country legally (including legal residency and citizenship for young people brought to the country as children).

The standards leave much to interpretation. For example, regarding border security, the standards say, “[w]e must secure our borders now and verify that they are secure.”  What does that verification look like? The standards say “[t]here will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws….” Does this preclude citizenship for the undocumented?

All of this will become concrete once legislation is drafted in the coming months. For the most part, advocates are cautiously optimistic—encouraged that Republican leaders are acknowledging the need for reform, but needing to see how these standards are interpreted in legislation.

Also this week, the President, once again, included immigration reform in his January 28 State of the Union address.

“…if we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement – and fix our broken immigration system.  Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted.  I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same.  ….  So let’s get immigration reform done this year.”

Outlook for Immigration Reform in 2014

With the release of their standards, House Republican leaders are ready to join the immigration debate in this Congress. There is a long pathway (and, I might add, no “special pathway”) between vague standards and concrete legislation. Still, there is reason to be optimistic that this latest development represents a step forward in finding a solution to the immigration problem.

The news comes in the context of unprecedented advocacy for immigration reform, steady public support, and a weakening of the obstructionist faction of the Republican Party that has created one crisis after another and has led this Congress to be among the least productive in history.

The “Tea Party” is weakened: The government shutdown in October weakened the influence of Tea Party-aligned conservatives when approval ratings for the Tea Party, and the Republican Party more generally, sank to record lows. By the end of the year, there was more bipartisan cooperation and Congress started accomplishing things. For the first time in years, both the Senate and the House passed a budget bill, setting spending limits for government programs. When Tea Party groups ginned up their networks to attack the budget bill for not being sufficiently austere, Speaker Boehner berated the groups, saying he thought they have “lost all credibility.”

The passage of the budget bill was followed on January 15 with passage in the House of a giant omnibus spending bill, containing all 12 appropriations bills setting specific spending levels for government agencies. Despite objections from Tea Party conservatives in the House, the bill passed overwhelmingly 359 to 67. The Senate followed, passing the bill 72 to 26. Passage of the spending bill averts the possibility of another government shutdown.

These and other examples of the decline of the obstructionist caucus have given House leadership more room to set an agenda.

Immigration reform veteran hired by Boehner: Another positive sign for immigration reform occurred in December, when Speaker Boehner hired Rebecca Tallent, the director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Immigration Task Force. Ms. Tallent was central to the drafting of immigration reform legislation in the Senate in 2007, when she served on the staff of Senator John McCain. The move by Boehner is a very good indication that the Speaker is serious about tackling immigration reform in the coming year.

Public support remains strong: Among the general public, support for immigration reform with a path to citizenship remains strong. In a Fox News poll released on January 22, 68% of voters supported allowing “illegal immigrants to remain in the country and eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship, but only if they meet certain requirements like paying back taxes, learning English, and passing a background check.” Only 15% of respondents said they thought immigrants should be sent back to their home countries. Similarly, in a CBS News poll released on January 23 of adults nationwide, 54% of respondents said that “[illegal immigrants] should be allowed to stay in the U.S. and eventually apply for citizenship.”

(By contrast, the public views Congress much less favorably, with just 13% of voters saying they approve of the way Congress is doing its job, according to a Washington Post poll released on January 26.)

Positive public opinion is echoed in the editorial pages of newspapers across the country. Here is a map where you can find newspapers that have endorsed comprehensive immigration reform.

Consequences of Continued Delay

Pressure tactics escalate as frustration grows: During November and December, a group of activists participated in a “Fast for Families” in a tent on the National Mall. The fasters on the Mall were joined by others around the country, and included some prominent evangelical leaders who have been very active in the push for immigration reform in this Congress. Some of the fasters went without food for more than 20 days. The fasters received a constant parade of high-level visitors, including the President and First Lady. The attention the fasters received, especially in ethnic press, was a constant reminder that the country was waiting for the Republican House to join the Senate and act on immigration reform.  The fasting campaign will continue this year, with fasters traveling the country visiting key Congressional districts and eventually ending up in Washington later in the spring.

The sacrifice being made by the fasters is just one manifestation of an increase in unconventional tactics being made by immigrant supporters whose frustration continues to be fed by Congressional inaction. On several occasions, advocates took over or blocked the offices of Republican leaders—both their district offices and Washington offices. A besieged Speaker Boehner resorted to locking the doors of his Capitol Hill office to avoid confronting immigrant supporters. Advocates even confronted him at his home to make their point. Children confronted Speaker Boehner at his favorite diner where he was having breakfast, telling him they were worried their parents might be deported because of the failure of the House to pass immigration reform.

Tough enforcement environment in a broken system: It is a truism that one of the consequences of a broken immigration system is the inability to sort the people who are here to do us harm from the people who are here to work. Enforcement resources are wasted in the effort to remove productive workers who have lived here for years. A corollary of this principle is that enforcement agents do not get the same kind of support from the public as they would if they were able to focus on removing public safety threats.

On December 19, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released their tally of removals for the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2013. According to the agency’s release, ICE conducted 368,644 removals during the year. While the agency touts the fact that “98 percent of removals met one or more of the agency’s civil immigration enforcement priorities,” many of those removed would be immigrants who would qualify for legal status if Congress would complete its work.

While the pace of removals, reflected in last year’s statistics, is marginally down, there are still a little more than 1,000 removals per day. Families continue to be torn apart at a shocking pace. In an effort to slow the pace of family separation, there has been an increase in civil disobedience actions in which activists disrupt Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations by, for example, surrounding buses of detained immigrants or blocking immigrant detention centers. It is very likely these actions will continue should Congress not act on reform.

As the debate drags on, there will also be escalating pressure on the White House to scale back the level of deportations. As one Democratic aide told Newsweek,

“The concern is really that if nothing happens on immigration reform, the attention is going to turn to the White House. Either the White House does something and gets the Republicans really mad and again plays into that talking point of ‘We protect America from Obama,’ or he doesn’t, the deportations continue and Democrats go into 2014 with more lukewarm support from Latinos. We’re deporting 400,000 people a year, so there’s a cost to waiting as well.”

This article was written for the National Immigration Forum, and a version was published in the Forum’s Immigration Policy Update.