Ups and Downs: Republican Leaders Backing Off from Immigration Reform

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If the immigration reform debate was an amusement ride, it would be a roller coaster. At the end of last month, House Republican leaders released a set of “standards” that, they said, would guide their work on immigration reform in this Congress. A few days later, on February 6, House Speaker John Boehner went before the press to say that,

“…there’s widespread doubt about whether [the Obama administration] can be trusted to enforce our laws, and it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”

Mr. Boehner appeared to be dampening hopes he had raised the week before that the House would act on immigration reform. This latest news won’t be the end of the immigration reform ride in this Congress.

Fire from the Right

Mr. Boehner’s public rationalization for tamping down expectations was that it was the president’s fault—Mr. Obama can’t be trusted to enforce the law, should immigration reform be passed. That idea is quite a stretch to those who have watched this administration deport nearly two million immigrants, more than the previous administration did in eight years. In any event, Senator Charles Schumer, one of the authors of immigration reform legislation in the Senate, suggested that immigration reform could be passed now and implementation could be delayed until 2017, after President Obama leaves office. The idea was rejected by Republican leaders.

In reality, as has been widely reported, the Speaker’s latest pronouncements on immigration reform has much more to do with the ongoing internal feud within the Republican caucus. There was strong push back against the leadership’s immigration standards from the most conservative elements of the House Republican Caucus and from outside tea party-aligned groups.

Messaging to the Wrong Electorate

Efforts to blame President Obama for lack of movement on immigration reform is not likely to work, except perhaps with the shrinking portion of the electorate that is the Republican Party’s conservative base. Republicans need to attract more voters from the fastest-growing part of the electorate—Latinos and immigrants—and those voters have been getting the message for months that the Republican-controlled House has yet to act on immigration reform. The continued failure of the House to act will only reinforce that message. (See, for example, this February 8th editorial from the nation’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, La Opinion.)

For their part, Democrats will be happy to reinforce that message. On February 13, Senator Schumer suggested that House Democrats file a discharge petition on the Senate bill in the House. Should a discharge petition acquire 218 signatures, House leaders would be forced to bring the bill to the Floor for a vote. Such a tactic is controversial in this case and has little chance of success, but if pursued it will further shine a spotlight on the failure of Republicans in the House to act on immigration reform.

Lame Duck for the Rest of the Year?

One school of thought within the Republican caucus argues that, with Republican fortunes boosted by administration blunders in the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, Republicans in Congress should stay away from significant legislation that may highlight internal divisions. If this reasoning is followed, this Congress is essentially over—not only will immigration not be addressed, but there will be no significant legislation to address any number of the country’s pressing problems until the next Congress.

It Doesn’t Get Easier

A counter-argument says that if Republicans put off immigration reform until the next Congress, presidential politics will make it difficult to address the issue. Republican primary candidates will feel pressure to appeal to the anti-immigrant segment of their base, creating incentive to further delay immigration reform. The resulting lack of progress on reform will, once again, drive Latino and immigrant voters into the Democratic camp, making it nearly impossible for Republicans to capture the presidency.

Forcing Executive Action?

Mr. Boehner said that immigration reform cannot be taken up until Republicans can trust that the president will enforce the newly-passed law. The reality is the reverse: If immigration reform continues to be put off by the House, President Obama will be impelled to do what he can to mitigate the damage being caused by the continued failure of Congress to do its job. The president has already said as much:

“It is my firm belief that we can get immigration reform done this year,” he said. “I don’t want to pre-suppose that we can’t. Obviously, if at some point we see that it’s not getting done, I’m going to look at all options to make sure that we have a rational, smart system of immigration.”

There will be tremendous pressure on the president to use his executive authority to protect immigrants who would otherwise be eligible for a legalization process if ever Congress fails to act.

Waiting for the Right Moment

Republican leaders surely know all of this, so this latest reversal of fortune for immigration reform may reverse yet again. As Charlie Cook notes in the National Journal,

“While it could be that Boehner really has had a change of heart about bringing immigration up this year, it could also be that his backing off is a strategic retreat, or a feign, to defuse at least some of the opposition until the optimal time comes.”

That optimal time may be after the majority of filing deadlines have passed for Republican primaries. (Or it could be later, in a lame duck session.)

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

Photo by Riccardo Cuppini via Flickr.