Are Immigration Reform Hopes for 2014 Dead Already?

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they want to pass comprehensive legislation this year, but getting there won’t be easy.

National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
May 22, 2014, 12:59 p.m.

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Polit­ics, not policy, is what fuels the stan­doff between Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats over im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

At least ac­cord­ing to Rep. Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez, a long­time im­mig­ra­tion re­form ad­voc­ate. The Demo­crat­ic con­gress­man from Illinois says that the es­sen­tial prob­lem in the im­mig­ra­tion de­bate is not a fun­da­ment­al dis­agree­ment over policy is­sues — it’s “the polit­ic­al pos­tur­ing of both parties.”

Gu­ti­er­rez said Thursday at a Na­tion­al Journ­al policy sum­mit un­der­writ­ten by Qual­comm that com­prom­ise is ne­ces­sary for com­pre­hens­ive re­form. If the de­cision is between “cit­izen­ship for all or re­form for no one,” he said, “we’re go­ing to get re­form for no one.”

Former Re­pub­lic­an Mis­sis­sippi Gov. Haley Bar­bour spoke after Gu­ti­er­rez, af­firm­ing the need for change. “The status quo is about the worst op­tion that we have,” he said. Bar­bour said that House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, and oth­er mem­bers of lead­er­ship are “ser­i­ously com­mit­ted” to passing re­form in the near fu­ture.

But for all the rhet­or­ic high­light­ing com­mon ground between the two — the need for re­form now — dif­fer­ences re­main on spe­cif­ic is­sues.

Bar­bour poin­ted to bor­der se­cur­ity as one of the lar­ger policy de­bates that an im­mig­ra­tion re­form deal will have to over­come in the House. A re­cent poll from Pew Re­search showed that the ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­ans think that strengthened bor­der con­trol should be in place be­fore un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants can ap­ply for leg­al status in the U.S.; 60 per­cent of Demo­crats, however, think un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants should be al­lowed to ap­ply for leg­al status while bor­der se­cur­ity is be­ing im­proved.

Dif­fer­ences like this one have made a House deal look less likely than it might have just a few months ago. In Janu­ary, Pres­id­ent Obama pre­dicted that the House would pass re­form in 2014. In the same month, Boehner and House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, R-Va., de­clared im­mig­ra­tion re­form a top pri­or­ity for 2014, and the Re­pub­lic­an Party re­leased a doc­u­ment out­lining its prin­ciples on im­mig­ra­tion. Fast for­ward to May and things look more bleak. Boehner has re­turned to blam­ing the pres­id­ent for the im­passe over im­mig­ra­tion; mean­while, House Re­pub­lic­ans blocked an im­mig­ra­tion vote on Wed­nes­day.

Much of the de­bate among pan­el par­ti­cipants this Tues­day centered around the ex­ist­ence — or lack there­of — of a con­sensus on im­mig­ra­tion policy. Doug Holtz-Eakin, the pres­id­ent of Amer­ic­an Ac­tion For­um, said that he sees “no ser­i­ous dis­agree­ment” between Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans over bor­der se­cur­ity, visa, and leg­al status is­sues. Oth­ers echoed the sen­ti­ment: Bar­bour had said earli­er that Re­pub­lic­ans are largely in fa­vor of re­form, and Tamar Jac­oby, pres­id­ent and CEO of Im­mig­ra­tion­Works USA, said that the ques­tion is not if, but when, House Re­pub­lic­ans will pass re­form.

Mark Krikori­an, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter for Im­mig­ra­tion Stud­ies, pushed back on Holtz-Eakin’s idea of a con­sensus. The co­ali­tion for re­form, he said, is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” He foresaw a re­play of a land­mark 1986 im­mig­ra­tion bill that fell far short of ex­pect­a­tions, ar­guing that re­form in its cur­rent shape will do little to bet­ter the present situ­ation.

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