Opportunity For Immigration Reform, Yet Many Obstacles Remain

By Lanhee Chen

Members of Congress are in their home districts for the month of August, which gives us the opportunity to take a step back and assess where things stand in the debate over comprehensive immigration reform.  The optimism that supporters of reform felt in late June, when the Senate passed the so-called “Gang of Eight” bill, has given way to concern and pessimism as the momentum to pass comprehensive legislation has stalled in the House.

It is premature, however, to completely foreclose the possibility that immigration reform will pass the House this year.  Leading Republicans from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) have suggested that all of the components making up comprehensive immigration reform legislation should be considered by the House this Fall.  And Republicans’ generally poor showing amongst Latino voters in the 2012 election cycle still remains a strong motivating factor for action in this policy area.

When the House returns to work in September, it will likely approach immigration reform in a piecemeal fashion, breaking apart the various components of comprehensive reform (e.g., border security, visas for high-skilled workers) to consider them individually.  This approach is preferred by most of the House Republican Conference, and a handful of electorally vulnerable Democrats.

Further crowding the House’s schedule are the looming fiscal battles to be waged this Fall—including debates over government funding and increasing the debt ceiling.  The fact that the Congress must turn its attention to these matters decreases the likelihood that any immigration legislation will see its way through both chambers and onto President Obama’s desk.

The most contentious issue in the fight over immigration reform legislation remains the question of how to handle the roughly twelve million illegal immigrants in the United States.

Prior to the August recess, there were signs that the House Republican leadership would be supportive of legislation similar to the DREAM Act, which would create a pathway to citizenship for some immigrants who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children by their parents.  House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) held a hearing on the issue in July, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has publicly confirmed that he is working on legislation with Goodlatte to address this matter.

Democrats, however, have signaled that a focus on the so-called “Dreamers” isn’t enough.  Most Democrats still favor a comprehensive package that includes an earned pathway to citizenship for the millions of otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants currently in the United States.

For most House Republicans, there remains strong resistance to any consideration of a pathway to citizenship.  This is despite a strong push from many parties that House Republicans are normally responsive to, including free-market oriented economists, evangelical Christian organizations, and conservative leaders like Grover Norquist and American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas.

The likelihood that a pathway to citizenship gets voted on by the House this Fall may depend on the response that members of Congress get to such proposals while they are home during the August recess.  It is standard practice for them to host a number of town meetings and other “listening sessions” while they are in their home districts to get feedback from their constituents.  (Recall that it was during the August recess in 2010 that opposition to Obamacare crystallized and President Obama’s healthcare legislation became the primary issue that catapulted Republicans to the majority in the House of Representatives in the November elections that year.)  As journalist Byron York recently suggested:

“If August goes quietly on the immigration front, some Republican lawmakers may return to Washington with the sense that voters back home don’t really mind that immigration reform goes forward. And then it will. If, on the other hand, lawmakers hear expressions of serious opposition at town meetings, their conclusion will be just the opposite. And reform will likely go down to defeat.”

Initial media reports suggest that some Republicans, including McCarthy, and Reps. Daniel Webster (R-FL) and Aaron Schock (R-IL), have suggested in town meetings that they might embrace an earned pathway to citizenship.  It remains to be seen, however, what the constituent response is to such suggestions—and whether the initial flirtation with a comprehensive approach will turn into anything more concrete once legislators return to Washington in September.

It’s impossible to predict, with any certainty, what twists and turns the road to comprehensive immigration reform will take this Fall.  Odds are at this point that the road is a dead end.  But the fact remains that opportunities to fix our broken immigration system don’t come along very often and there remain significant motivations for both Democrats and Republicans to pass comprehensive reform.

Lanhee J. Chen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and teaches in the Public Policy Program at Stanford University.  Chen, a veteran of several high-profile political campaigns, has also served in government, the private sector, and academia. Before coming to Hoover, Chen was the policy director for the Romney-Ryan presidential campaign.

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