Why House Republicans Are (Still) Unlikely To Move On Immigration Reform

Why House Republicans Are (Still) Unlikely To Move On Immigration Reform

As congressional Republicans trash President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address, the leaders of the GOP’s House majority are signaling that they’re finally ready to move on one of the priorities that the president identified in his 2013 speech: Immigration reform.

On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner presented the party leadership’s immigration plan in a closed-door meeting of House Republicans.

“It’s important to act on immigration reform because we’re focused on jobs and economic growth, and this is about jobs and growth,” Boehner reportedly told his colleagues.

But a quick examination of leadership’s one-page “Standards for Immigration Reform” memo, a draft copy of which Politico has published online, suggests plenty of reasons to doubt that Republicans are really ready to move on a comprehensive immigration reform plan. In fact, such a move may be even less likely than it was a year ago.

The memo makes it clear that any bill to come out of the House will fall far short of the bipartisan compromise that passed the Senate in June. That bill would open a pathway to permanent U.S. citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants who already live in the United States (along with spending $30 billion to double the size of the Border Patrol and build 700 miles of new border fence, among other security measures).

“There will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws – that would be unfair to those immigrants who have played by the rules and harmful to promoting the rule of law,” the memo reads. “Rather, these persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S., but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits).”

The memo does not specify what living “legally and without fear” would entail — be it eligibility for a green card, eventual citizenship, or neither — but it does take pains to stress that “none of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced.”

Stricter enforcement is the key theme of the memo; in fact, it’s the very first principle in the House GOP’s “step-by-step, common-sense approach.” In a section titled “Border Security and Interior Enforcement Must Come First,” the memo insists that “it is the fundamental duty of any government to secure its borders, and the United States is failing in this mission. We must secure our borders now and verify that they are secure.”

This should set off alarm bells for reform advocates, who have seen this border security ruse before. The strategy goes as follows: Almost every time the national conversation turns to immigration, Republicans demand stricter border security measures as a precondition to any reforms. Democrats tend to accede, and then Republicans demand more. No legislation ever passes.

This helps to explain how the Border Patrol went from employing 12,185 agents in 2006 to 21,394 in 2013 — with a plan to add 20,000 more, if the Senate bill were to pass. Such a massive force completely defies common sense — especially considering that the U.S.-Mexico border has never been more secure. But given that Boehner has called the Senate bill’s security provisions “weak” and “laughable,” it’s a safe bet that the House will ask for even more stringent measures. And a bill that spends so much on militarizing the border without providing a pathway to citizenship would likely be a non-starter in the Democratic-controlled Senate (even if President Obama is willing to be flexible).

Of course, that assumes that Boehner can even get a bill through his own chamber — which is far from guaranteed. After all, the hardline anti-immigration forces that killed reform efforts in 2013 haven’t gone anywhere; anti-reform House aides have already reportedly begun meeting to plot a strategy to kill this latest legislative push, and the GOP caucus as a whole remains divided, at best, on the issue.

And for those members who could be vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right, the early months of 2014 seem to be the worst possible time for a politically contentious vote on immigration. Perhaps hoping to mitigate the risk of an ugly intraparty fight that could jeopardize the party’s chances in the midterm elections, Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) — the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee — has speculated that any immigration vote is “probably months out,” after “most of the primaries would’ve faded.” While this would protect lawmakers in the short term, it would also provide months for the anti-reform right to lobby House Republicans against making a deal.

The nativist wing of the party has certainly proven its effectiveness in this regard in the past, and its members may find it even easier to dissuade Republicans from acting in 2014 than they did in 2013. While the GOP base’s distaste for immigration reform has not waned, the general public’s passion for reform has. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that just 39 percent of Americans now believe that immigration reform should be an absolute priority this year, while 42 percent say it can can be delayed until next year, and 17 percent say Congress should not engage the issue at all. Is satisfying that 39 percent really worth the risk of crossing the right-wing base for House Republicans?

It’s certainly possible that House Republicans have undergone a sea change on the issue, and are finally ready to do something about America’s broken immigration system — after all, Boehner and his deputies are  certainly aware that it’s a huge political vulnerability for their party. But as long as the GOP is still trumpeting a “border security first, citizenship never” strategy, it’s a fair bet that Republicans are more interested in appearing as though they want to take action than they are in actually doing something.

AFP Photo/Jim Watson

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