Reading the Tea Leaves on Immigration Reform

As Congress returns from a two-week recess, we are still awaiting movement on immigration reform in the House. While there is still no sign of concrete accomplishment in the House, the tension between the two factions of House Republicans continue to break the surface and create news for immigration reporters always looking to write immigration reform’s obituary.

An example: Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and a potential Republican presidential candidate, created a stir when he said of undocumented immigrants,

“Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that that is a different kind of crime that there should be a price paid, but it shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families.”

As usual, any suggestion that undocumented immigrants be treated with something less than mass deportation caused some on the right wing of the Republican Party to have an apoplectic fit. However, there were also prominent voices within the party who came to Mr. Bush’s defense.

Among his defenders were two potential rivals in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Rand Paul said that, while Mr. Bush might have presented his comments more artfully, he wasn’t wrong to express them. Florida Senator Marco Rubio went further, saying that Bush was talking about,

“…the human element of immigration and the fact there are millions of people in the country who did violate our immigration laws, but they did so because they desperately want to provide their family a better future. It compels us to do something to fix the issue and prevent this problem from existing in the future.”

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said that he applauded Bush for for his comments, and that “to lump everyone who crosses the border illegally into the same class is unfair and unproductive.”

Even conservative Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly defended Mr. Bush’s remarks, saying that while there are “bad illegal aliens, … most of the people are good people,” and there should be a way for “a great nation like America [to] come up with an immigration plan that’s fair.”

Bush himself did not back down from his comments, telling a reporter from Politico,

“the simple fact is, there is no conflict between enforcing our laws, believing in the rule of law and having some sensitivity to the immigrant experience, which is part of who we are as a country.”

Republicans following the noisiest voices

When it comes to immigration reform, Republican politicians are out of sync with the normal Republican voter. Data guru Nate Silver, at FiveThirtyEight, recently wrote about the attitude of Republican voters towards immigration reform. When surveyed, 37% of Republican voters say they are in favor of immigration reform with a path to citizenship without conditions. When conditions are added (such as those that are included in actual legislation, the Senate’s bill) support increases to 72%. In a list of 11 controversial issues where there is a partisan divide on the solution, immigration reform with a conditional path to citizenship produces the smallest divide between Republican and Democrat voters — 83% of Democrats support that policy (an 11% difference). Silver notes that even Republican primary voters in Arizona, who were interviewed in a 2012 exit poll, were divided on the question of what to do about immigrants living and working here illegally. Only 34% of these voters thought they should be deported.

So, Republican members of Congress who hold the key to legislating a solution are more in tune with an echo chamber of talk show hosts and anti-immigrant groups that are politically more to the right than the average Republican voter. Defying the orthodoxy of the far right on immigration reform may be less risky than the press makes it seem.

Republican leaders still saying immigration will be taken up

The fact that there is such a split in Republican constituencies, and an awareness that immigration reform should be cleared from the table prior to the 2016 presidential election season if Republicans hope to increase support from Hispanic voters, keeps the chances for immigration reform alive. On April 17, the Wall Street Journal reported that Speaker Boehner and other Republican leaders have been telling donors and industry groups that they will pass immigration reform legislation this year. According to persons attending a recent fundraiser in Las Vegas, Speaker Boehner said that he was “hellbent” on getting reform done this year. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte told a gathering of Silicon Valley executives that reform legislation was “entirely possible” in the form of several bills to be passed this summer.

Outside of the House leadership, reform supporter Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) is reported to have been told by House leaders to be ready with legalization legislation for debate in June or July. He believes that should Republicans fail to take up reform in the House by the August recess, the president will feel compelled to act on his own, and Republicans will lose the opportunity to put their stamp on immigration reform until the next president is in office. He is not the only member of the Republican caucus to warn that the window for reform is closing for Republicans, until after the next presidential election.

Until reform legislation is introduced and brought to the floor, though, it is impossible to say whose voice leaders will ultimately follow.

Efforts to Get House to Act Continue

While there has been increasing pressure on the president to provide greater relief from deportation through executive action, Democrats and advocates for reform continue to focus on getting House Republicans to bring immigration reform to the Floor of the House. Some recent examples:

  • On April 15, House Democrats launched a campaign to pressure 30 House Republicans to sign their discharge petition to bring H.R. 15 (a House immigration reform bill that resembles the Senate’s bill in most respects) to the Floor. The targeted Republican members have all signaled support for immigration reform.
  • Fast for Families recently concluded a cross-country bus tour, ending in Washington with visits to the offices of Speaker Boehner and other Congressional leaders. Along the way, the group stopped in the district offices of members of Congress to press for immigration reform.
  • On April 15, a group of high-level evangelical leaders met with the president to urge him to work with Congress to pass immigration reform.

Meanwhile, Republicans Block Smaller Reform Bills

While Republican leaders continue to hint that action will be taken on immigration reform, the only action Republicans leaders have actually taken thus far is to block pieces of reform.  The most recent example came in reaction to an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. Representative Jeff Denham, a California Republican who has spoken out in favor of reform, attempted to offer his bill, the ENLIST Act, as an amendment to the defense bill in the House Armed Services Committee. Denham’s legislation would offer legal status to certain undocumented individuals for service in the U.S. armed forces. That effort was quashed when Committee Chairman Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) refused to allow the amendment, saying the defense bill was not an appropriate vehicle.

The latest action to block even a small piece of immigration reform only increases the disparity between Republican leader statements that reform should be dealt with and their actions to block reform or to undo presidential actions to mitigate the harmful effects of a broken system.