By SEUNG MIN KIM and CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN, POLITICO
President Barack Obama paused for what felt like an eternity to the immigration reform activists seated around the Roosevelt Room.
Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, had just explained why she declared him the “deporter in chief” in a speech in early March. Obama, who was infuriated when he first heard Murguia’s remarks weeks earlier, sat in silence, trying to keep his anger in check, according to advocates in attendance.
When Obama finally spoke, he scolded them. The story was now about infighting between Obama and activists rather than the House Republicans refusing to take up a bill. “If you take the pressure off of them and put it on me, you’ll guarantee that there is no legislation,” he warned.
The frustrations that boiled over three months ago during the White House meeting were years in the making, but were exacerbated by the growing realization that an outcome once thought to be inevitable increasingly looked impossible.
The best chance in three decades to rewrite immigration laws has slipped away just one year after the Senate garnered 68 votes for sweeping reform of the system, 20 months after strong Hispanic turnout for Democrats in the 2012 election sparked a GOP panic, and five years after Obama promised to act.
Immigration reform’s slow but steady failure exposes how an ideologically diverse and powerful network of supporters couldn’t bend the one group that mattered: House Republicans. Proponents turned their attention late to the House because of a longer-than-expected Senate debate, and once they did, the GOP’s political will had faded and hard-liners made inroads with newer lawmakers that were difficult to reverse, according to interviews with several dozen key participants on both sides of the battle.
Last summer, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) privately told the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference that if reformers won the August recess, then Republicans would move a bill in the fall. But the Syria crisis, the government shutdown and the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov consumed attention through the end of 2013. By the time Boehner released a set of immigration principles in January, Republicans saw little short-term benefit to tackling a divisive issue just as their midterm election prospects were strengthening.
As recently as this month, however, there was more movement in the House than previously known. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) had been quietly shopping a PowerPoint presentation of a border enforcement and legalization bill to his colleagues and secured soft commitments from at least 120 Republicans, according to multiple sources familiar with the process.
But then Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lost his Republican primary election. And young children from Central America crossed illegally over the southwestern border in record numbers. Those two unforeseen events killed any remaining chance for action this year.
For their part, reformers underestimated how impervious most House Republicans would be to persuasion from evangelicals, law enforcement and big business, and how the GOP’s animus toward Obama over health care and executive actions would bleed into immigration reform.
“It’s one of the most frustrating moments that I’ve had,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a member of the Senate Gang of Eight. “The Senate passage was historic, it was real momentum and to see it totally find itself in a dark hole in the House of Representatives is incredibly disappointing not only to me personally but to millions of people across the country.”
Attention will soon turn to how Obama uses his executive authority to provide relief for undocumented immigrants. It will be the next test in the strained relationship between the president and his progressive allies, who are demanding another round of administrative actions.
Obama tried in that tense March session to convince the advocates that he understood their fight. But the president’s attempt to highlight his commitment to comprehensive reform going all the way back to his Senate days only incensed the group, which interpreted his remark as a knock on their own dedication to the cause.
“We’ve been working on this issue long before you got to the White House,” Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, told Obama. “And we will be working on it long after you leave, if necessary.”
The strong bipartisan vote for the Senate bill exactly one year ago Friday was hard, at first, for the House to ignore, even among the leaders who said they wouldn’t take cues from the upper chamber.
Within weeks, Boehner issued a challenge to a pro-reform group.
Nearly all House Republican leaders blocked off time to meet with about 30 members of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference in Cantor’s conference room in the Capitol. Starting with Boehner, each lawmaker went around the table to stress the need to pass immigration reform.
According to two attendees, Boehner told the assembled advocates to go out and win August.
“He promised us in that meeting that if we can just make the August recess of 2013 go smoothly and not be a riot around the country, that we would be able to get back after the August recess,” recalled Robert Gittelson, vice president of governmental affairs for the NHCLC.
At one point, the Rev. Daniel de Leon, a California pastor, asked House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte about family reunification — a critical issue for religious communities. The normally reserved Virginia Republican — whom some advocates viewed as an obstacle to reform and who oversees immigration legislation in his committee — began to cry and choked up completely, two people inside the room recalled.
About a minute later, Goodlatte regained his composure. Apologizing for the abrupt tears, the former immigration attorney discussed how the issue is a deeply personal one: His wife Maryellen’s parents were first-generation immigrants from Ireland, he explained, and throughout his legal career, Goodlatte helped immigrants from more than 70 nations come to the United States.
Reformers largely won the August recess — there was no tea party-inspired revolt pressuring congressmen to oppose reform when they returned to Washington.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) was mocked for hosting a rally against immigration reform in Richmond, Va., near Cantor’s district that drew only about 50 people. Images of the congressman standing alone under a gazebo at a public park made the opposition look weak, even a bit embarrassing.
But that still didn’t convince House Republicans to act.
In January, King held a key piece of paper in his jacket pocket during the immigration discussion at the House GOP retreat in Cambridge, Md.
Scribbled on it was a list of about 50 names of fellow House Republicans that King considered allies, having talked personally to each of them and urged them to speak out against immigration reform. Now, he would need every one of them as the GOP leadership introduced principles that included legalization for most undocumented immigrants.
Many of the 50 had cycled through a series of meetings that King and Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) began in February 2013, when King became convinced that an overhaul was coming.
“I said, ‘I’m going to fight it all the way. And I’m going to die on the hill if that’s gonna happen,’” King recalled in a recent interview. “That’s what I said: ‘I’m going to die on the hill.’ And so that’s why I began to mobilize.”
The reason for the early meetings was simple: Nearly half of House Republicans were either freshmen or sophomores who weren’t around for the last major immigration fight in 2007. With some key exceptions, these lawmakers were blank slates on immigration policy.
“The new Republicans in the House and Senate — you know how their mind worked?” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a key senator involved in the effort. “It was, ‘We need to end the lawlessness at the border and build a fence but I love immigrants and I really think we should welcome immigrants and we need more immigrants.’”
“Well, that sounds good on the campaign trail, but few of them had actually read data about we admit a million on a path to citizenship every year, we have 600,000 guest workers in addition every year,” Sessions continued. “Few of them had asked themselves, in a time of high unemployment and slow growth, you want to increase the number?”
There were three tiers of meetings: The first was primarily members-only on the House side. Then communications aides from House and Senate offices met to discuss messaging tactics. Finally, there were broader staff huddles involving policy and communications hands. A couple dozen Republican offices from both ends of the Capitol regularly participated.
House members tried to meet weekly when they were in Washington, usually in King’s office but sometimes in other Hill locations to strategize their foes’ next move. When aides met, they would pore over the polling and studies available to make their case, and figure out how to loop in outside allies, such as talk-radio hosts.
Sessions and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) were the most active senators, while Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) played supporting roles. Key House lawmakers included King and Reps. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), Lamar Smith (R-Texas), John Fleming (R-La.), Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), among several others, according to lawmakers and aides involved.
Reform opponents felt they notched victories in multiple key stages.
Boehner declared quickly and often that the Senate bill was a nonstarter in his chamber. But after conservatives whipped up paranoia that any small-bore House immigration bill could be negotiated with the sweeping Senate bill, Boehner said last November there would be no such formal House-Senate conference.
The speaker tried to move the issue forward on his terms at the January retreat, releasing the one-page set of principles that included a statement for legalization of undocumented immigrants for most groups — a major shift for the House GOP. But opponents had already put the conference on notice by the time the principles were unveiled.
Before the retreat, Sessions and his aides delivered a 30-page memo to every House Republican office — both digital and hard-copy versions. In it, Sessions outlined what he called the “negative impact” that current immigration plans would exert on “American workers, taxpayers and the rule of law.” Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly also blanketed Republican lawmakers shortly before the retreat with polling numbers on immigration that King considered a vital resource.
During the retreat, King deployed his own rapid response — tweeting reporters and others closely watching the private session: “#NoAmnesty #GOPRetreat: Intense debate on immigration inside now. 3-4 to 1 don’t trust the president and demand he secure border first.”
In an interview at the time, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said the sentiment in the room could be divided into three camps: Republicans who were eager to move on reform (he counted himself in this group); lawmakers who would never vote for an overhaul; and a wide middle swath who might have been open to the leadership’s plan but said their deep distrust of Obama was a significant barrier.
Still, the narrative that survived the retreat was one of fierce conservative blowback.
Rush Limbaugh railed against legal status as “the end of the Republican Party. Why would they preside over their own demise?” Laura Ingraham warned that Republicans who backed it “are in violation of their oath of office.”
It was also unclear whether there was an outside strategy for promoting the House GOP principles by backers off the Hill. Advocates were largely unaware of details in the tightly-guarded document — leaving them on their own to read the tea leaves from Republican leadership and prepare for the response from the rank and file.
“The principles, we underestimated the backlash on those,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the pro-reform U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We could’ve been prepared with our folks calling and saying, ‘Support the principles.’”
Yet the White House was so encouraged by the GOP document that Obama quickly signaled he was ready to compromise.
Republicans had proposed legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants, but stopped short of explicitly mentioning citizenship for most of them. Obama said he was open to the proposal, as long as the immigrants were not permanently barred from becoming citizens.
The release of the principles, coupled with Obama’s potential concession on citizenship, was the first time in months that immigration reform came alive. But Boehner soon backtracked, saying less than a week later that his conference would not act until they could trust the president.
“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws, and it’ll be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes,” Boehner said in February.
Boehner’s challenge has been the small circle of immigration hard-liners who could effectively derail any reform bill from passing the House without significant buy-in from Democrats. He had spoken privately and publicly about the need to do immigration reform, but by early this year, the Obama trust factor was too significant a hurdle for Boehner and his members.
Every time Boehner seemed to signal a step forward — such as mocking his rank and file at a Cincinnati luncheon — conservatives loudly rebelled, with some threatening his speakership.
Still, senior administration officials viewed Boehner’s February comment as just another excuse from a leader who couldn’t muster the courage to go through with reform. There was still a chance for the House to act after the Republican primary season largely ended in June, the officials argued to their progressive allies, so they needed to apply pressure until then.
But the activists were tired of waiting on Congress and enraged by the record number of deportations under a president they twice worked to elect.
Activists long viewed Obama as overly cautious. During the 2008 election, he promised a bill within his first year in office. But the economic crisis consumed his attention. He then chose to spend his political capital on health care reform. Facing election-year pressures, Obama issued a 2012 directive halting the deportations of certain young people. But Obama continued to deport other undocumented immigrants at a faster rate than his predecessors — nearly 2 million so far, the same number as that of the entire George W. Bush administration.
By the time Boehner pulled back on the principles, immigration activists had lost their patience.
“That was a real punch in the gut to many who had expected that this year there would have been a robust House engagement in the issue,” said Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration at the liberal Center for American Progress.
The advocates decided their groups needed to exert more pressure on Obama to act alone. Yes, they would continue to go after Republicans. But only the president could provide immediate relief to their communities, they argued.
Obama finally got fed up in early March, when Murguia called him the “deporter in chief.” There are rules for attacking friends in Washington, but to White House officials, she did it all wrong. First, neither the president nor his aides first heard the broadside directly from her, but rather through media reports. Second, Murguia personalized the criticism, one senior administration official said.
White House officials, anxious to stem the bleeding, summoned three constituencies to separate meetings with Obama — Congressional Hispanic Caucus leaders, immigration advocacy groups and the Spanish-language media. Obama urged them to back down. He wouldn’t be ready to announce executive actions for several months, anyway, so they needed to turn their full attention back to congressional Republicans, the president said.
In the 90-minute session with immigrant activists, many of the 17 leaders told Obama that it was beyond time for him to act. Obama responded that they needed to remain as committed to passing legislation as he was. Some activists said they took offense to the president’s message and his tone. But the activists didn’t let up either.
“They don’t swoon around him,” said one advocate who attended the meeting and asked to speak anonymously because the session was off the record. “People are viewing it from a deeply moral standpoint. It is coming from their core and that trumps everything to them.”
But the meetings succeeded in buying the president a few more months because some, but not all, of the groups did redirect their energies back to the House, where some Republicans quietly pushed forward.
Diaz-Balart had planned to inform House leaders two days after Cantor’s primary reelection that a majority of the conference had shown interest in his bill, according to sources familiar with the process. He wanted a week to firm up the numbers and a commitment to bring it to the floor.
There was no guarantee the plan would’ve succeeded where many others failed. Diaz-Balart had not shown a bill to his colleagues.
But the Republican never had a chance to make the pitch to leadership because of a dramatic twist nobody ever considered that helped kill reform: Cantor lost.
The reasons for Cantor’s surprising defeat are complex, but in the post-mortems, the role of immigration reform quickly hardened into conventional wisdom: His support of incremental immigration measures hurt him, and as a result, other Republicans wouldn’t want to touch the issue.
Images of unaccompanied minors surging across the southwestern border only reinforced conservatives’ views that the border isn’t secure.
But its demise was nearly assured even before then, the casualty of missed opportunities, short-term political calculations and unmet expectations.
The Senate debate took longer than the White House had wanted, allowing the lessons of 2012 to fade for House Republicans. The cause suffered a psychic blow when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a conservative essential to passing the Senate bill, decided not to get involved in the House debate.
Reformers now acknowledge that they made a costly mistake by not focusing more of their firepower on the House earlier, even before the Senate bill gained traction.
“It didn’t take a political genius to see that the House was challenging,” said Cesar Vargas of the pro-reform Dream Action Coalition. “We should’ve focused on the [Raul] Labradors, the Cantors back then, when there was more momentum, more encouraging pressure.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), part of the bipartisan group of eight House lawmakers who tried and ultimately failed to hammer out their own comprehensive bill, said the lack of attention to the House early in 2013 was a “huge problem.”
“As we began the fight, every resource, all energy, all focus, was on the Senate,” Gutierrez said.
Once the Senate passed its bill, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a key leader in the upper chamber for reform, embarked on a campaign to persuade House Republicans. He kept meticulous spreadsheets of more than 100 GOP lawmakers who might let reform proceed and convened calls with key activists to urge them to keep pushing. The senator logged the hundreds of conversations as data-backed proof that House Republicans were at least hearing from supporters.
Still, others believed some immigration advocates wrote off too many House Republicans as unpersuadable. One example cited in numerous interviews was that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spoke out forcefully for an overhaul, but never punished lawmakers who weren’t pro-reform by refusing donations or endorsements.
“There’s the Steve Kings who you’re never going to get … and the John Carters, who you basically have,” said Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of the business group ImmigrationWorks USA. “But there are a lot of people in the middle. I don’t think we, enough, took the argument to them.”
Reformers relied heavily on a strong Senate showing. The Gang of Eight believed if they drove up the number of votes, the House would be pressured to act quickly. Schumer touted his 70-vote strategy as essential.
The Senate bill got 68 votes — impressive, but still never enough to prompt House action. And a majority of Senate Republicans voted against the legislation — a key number that the bill’s opponents used to their advantage.
Members of the Gang of Eight said they don’t believe they miscalculated by aiming high, although Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said they shouldn’t have set a target. Menendez said the policy concessions made to reach the 70-vote mark would have largely been the same as what the senators would’ve had to do to break the filibuster-proof 60-vote barrier.
But liberal advocates said the 70-vote threshold caused Senate negotiators to give away too much, too soon — like the so-called “border surge” amendment cobbled together in the last days of the Senate fight.
Provisions like the border surge, which was credited with securing multiple GOP votes for the overall bill, should have been saved as bargaining chips when the battle moved to the House, the advocates said.
But it’s unclear whether that strategy would have worked. One year later, Rubio said he repeatedly warned the Gang of Eight that the lack of effective border security would derail the bill in the House.
The “fundamental hang-up,” Rubio said, was that House Republicans wanted assurances that border security would be in place before legalization occurred — a demand that would never fly in the Democratic-led Senate.
“Every time I would bring that up during the negotiations, people would say, ‘He’s trying to back out of the deal’ or ‘he’s trying to blow the deal up’ and it wasn’t the case,” Rubio said during an interview. “It’s because I could see, having been in communications with the House, where they were headed on it, how strongly they felt about it.”
“Unless we can get to a point where [House Republicans] believed — and the majority of the American people believed — that the enforcement was going to happen, it was going to be very difficult to address the issue of those who are here illegally,” he said. “I knew that before, I warned about it during, and it’s only proven true since.”
Despite the lack of action, reformers said an evolution has occurred. The debate is no longer about whether an overhaul of the system must occur, but rather when it should be done.
After their struggle over the past year, some activists said their only solution might be a long-term strategy to flip control of the House back to Democrats, while holding the Senate and the White House.
“Our biggest mistake was that we believed Republicans wanted to change course after the 2012 election,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, who has been working on the issue in Washington for more than two decades. “I don’t believe we will make that mistake again.