The specter of a government shutdown, the looming debt ceiling, and potential military strikes in Syria have all distracted Congress from moving on immigration reform. But lawmakers and advocates have grown weary in waiting for the process to restart.
In a televised interview with Telemundo on Tuesday, President Obama appeared to signal that, despite his desire for the House to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, he would be open to a piecemeal approach.
"If in fact Speaker [John] Boehner thinks that procedurally he has to jump through a series of hoops—you know, I'm happy to let the House work its will as long as the bill that ends up on my desk speaks to the central issues that have to be resolved," Obama said. Those central issues, he said, include securing the border, penalizing employers taking advantage of undocumented workers, improving the legal immigration system, and creating a pathway to citizenship.
"If those elements are contained in a bill--whether they come through the House a little bit at a time or they come in one fell swoop—I'm less concerned about process; I'm more interested in making sure it gets done," Obama added.
The step-by-step approach has been the one favored by House leadership, which welcomed Obama's comments.
"If immigration reform is going to work, it is essential that we have the confidence of the American people that it's done the right way," said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck. "That means a deliberate, step-by-step approach, not another massive Obamacare-style bill that people don't understand."
Democrats and reform advocates have long bristled at the idea of passing immigration reform in pieces, in part out of a fear that it was an effort to slow reform or gut a pathway to citizenship, a central component advocates have been pushing.
Now that the political dust has settled in the months after the Senate passed its comprehensive bill, the desire for a comprehensive bill in the House is eclipsed by the reality that one won't hit the floor.
"Look, you got coffee, toast, and later on in the day, you're going to bring me the eggs and bacon and juice, I'm good with that—as long as at the end of the day, I get a full meal," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leader on immigration reform. "The Republicans are in the majority, and we should all come to that understanding: They're in the majority and they get to dictate. But what the Republicans also to have to understand is a majority of members of Congress are ready to vote for comprehensive immigration reform and it's not a secret."
Boehner has said he won't put reform on the floor without a majority of House Republicans backing it.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., took Obama's comments to mean that passing immigration bills one at a time or even passing a single immigration-related bill in the House may be enough of a hook to move into conference with the Senate.
"It makes some sense. But I think the desire, at least from constituents and the public, is for something comprehensive. As long as Boehner hides behind the majority of the majority, it looks like we're going to see piecemeals," Grijalva said.
There have also been many discussions in the caucus of a Democratic placeholder bill, although those conversations have not yet coalesced into a plan, according to some congressional Democrats.
The border-security portion of the whole debate appears to be the one that will have the easiest time in the House. A bill by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, passed unanimously out of committee, with a number of Democrats signaling they prefer it to the $46 billion Senate security provisions. Under the House measure, the Homeland Security Department first would have to develop a border-security plan—subject to congressional approval—that would eliminate 90 percent of illegal border crossings within five years.
McCaul called the Senate approach to border security "a little misguided because you just threw a bunch of money at the problem without any strategy or plan, so it was an irresponsible bill." McCaul said he anticipated a vote on his bill as early as October, but that it would likely be timed with other immigration-related bills.
Those other bills are mainly coming from the House Judiciary Committee, which has passed legislation related to high-skilled and agricultural workers and interior enforcement. But the thorniest of issues in the House—a pathway to citizenship—hasn't been touched.
The thinking prior to September had been that the so-called Kids Act, from Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, both R-Va., could perhaps start the process to address what to do with those undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.
The intent of the legislation is to provide a legalization mechanism for children brought to the U.S. illegally. But a House Judiciary aide says that the bill is still being drafted and lacks a chief sponsor, so no date has been set for its introduction.
"We still need to find the appropriate legal status for those who are not lawfully present and those who, through no fault of their own, were brought into the U.S. by their parents at a young age, but we must have enforcement as a prerequisite," Goodlatte said in a statement.
Meanwhile, immigration-reform advocates on Wednesday showed no sign of backing off their demands that Obama change deportation policies on his own, despite his expressed concern that he doesn't have the legal authority. Seven undocumented immigrants chained themselves to the fence in front of the White House shouting "Not one more!" in both Spanish and English. They were arrested within an hour.
Obama said during the Tuesday interview on Telemundo that halting all deportations is "not an option" and "would be very difficult to defend legally." His words effectively ruled out a White-House-only alternative to immigration reform in Congress—sometimes called Plan B—that advocates have said would be their focus if a bill doesn't pass this year.
"He no want to, but yeah, he can," said Hispanic activist Benjamin Hehua in broken English, as his companions were being arrested.
The advocates' insistence that Obama has the power to change deportation policies without Congress illustrates the striking difference between their point of view and that of congressional Republicans, who believe Obama exceeded his authority in deferring deportations for undocumented youth last year. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has warned Republicans that Obama could continue such a power grab if lawmakers don't act on immigration this year.
Yet advocates brush off the legal hesitation from Obama, noting that he made the same argument about the deferred action program for so-called "Dreamers," undocumented young adults who were brought to the United States as children. "Before deferred action, the same argument was given," said Jacinta Gonzalez, a lead organizer for the Congress of Day Laborers. "When Congress doesn't act and he wants to be on the side of justice, he can do it."
As movement on immigration remains stalled in the House, some congressional Democrats still think Obama should use Plan B as leverage.
"If the pattern here continues, for activists, advocates, and a lot of Democratic members of this House, the pressure will be on the White House to do Plan B," Grijalva said.
This article appears in the September 19, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.