Is Immigration Really Dead in the House?

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Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID), speaks at the Conservative Political Action conference (CPAC), on February 10, 2011 in Washington, DC. The CPAC annual gathering is a project of the American Conservative Union. 
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Oct. 22, 2013, 4:20 p.m.

Rep. Raul Lab­rador, R-Idaho, de­clared im­mig­ra­tion re­form dead, so why aren’t the op­pon­ents of a big over­haul pour­ing the cham­pagne?

Be­cause they know bet­ter than any­one that the is­sue could be re­sur­rec­ted at any time.

When Pres­id­ent Obama de­clared im­mig­ra­tion re­form his top post-shut­down pri­or­ity, op­pon­ents of a path­way to cit­izen­ship could have de­clared vic­tory then and there. The pres­id­ent’s ad­vocacy gives House Re­pub­lic­ans an easy way to ig­nore the is­sue, much like a teen­ager tunes out a nag­ging moth­er. The bad blood between the White House and House Speak­er John Boehner got worse dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down, mak­ing bi­par­tis­an ne­go­ti­ations on oth­er is­sues more dif­fi­cult. Re­pub­lic­ans also flinch at the thought of giv­ing Obama an­oth­er leg­acy vic­tory.

All this should add up to a dead is­sue. “So why am I not sleep­ing at night?” quer­ied Roy Beck, pres­id­ent of Num­ber­sUSA, a grass­roots group that has ef­fect­ively lob­bied dozens of rank-and-file House Re­pub­lic­ans to op­pose any­thing that could lead to leg­al­iz­a­tion of people without pa­pers. “What wor­ries me is that Boehner and the busi­ness lob­bies get to­geth­er to pull some kind of man­euver” for a lim­ited leg­al­iz­a­tion/guest-work­er/bor­der-se­cur­ity bill. “Then Demo­crats in the Sen­ate will say, “˜Maybe this is our last chance un­til 2017,’ “ he said.

That’s all it would take. Obama would sign it, and a trouble­some is­sue for Re­pub­lic­ans would be off the table un­til at least after the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Re­pub­lic­ans could then ap­peal to His­pan­ic voters who are angry at Obama for ig­nor­ing them dur­ing most of his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

It could be tough for Demo­crats to say no to half a loaf. “This is very tricky for the press and lib­er­al im­mig­ra­tion ad­voc­ates. If they try to ar­gue that this is un­fair and this is second-class cit­izen­ship and they kill it, they’re go­ing to look ter­rible,” said Alf­onso Aguilar, a former Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who touts the be­ne­fits of im­mig­ra­tion re­form for Re­pub­lic­ans. He now runs the Latino Part­ner­ship for Con­ser­vat­ive Prin­ciples.

Power­ful House Re­pub­lic­ans like Boehner, Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, and Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an all want to see something hap­pen on im­mig­ra­tion. The only thing that has stopped them is skep­ti­cism from tea parti­ers like Rep. Lou Bar­letta, R-Pa., who says that Obama hasn’t en­forced ex­ist­ing laws, or Rep. Tim Huel­skamp, R-Kan., who warns that the pres­id­ent is us­ing the is­sue for polit­ic­al gain. This group of hard-line House mem­bers is amp­li­fied by non­stop ad­vocacy from groups like Num­ber­sUSA, which flood their of­fices with calls say­ing there should be no leg­al­iz­a­tion for un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants un­der any cir­cum­stances.

Beck’s grass­roots net­work has been act­ively lob­by­ing House Re­pub­lic­ans this week to stop a non­con­tro­ver­sial bor­der-se­cur­ity bill from com­ing to the House floor, fear­ing that the meas­ure is the “camel’s nose un­der the tent” lead­ing to leg­al­iz­a­tion of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. The bill could be­come a con­fer­ence-com­mit­tee vehicle with a Sen­ate bill that would give un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants a 13-year path to cit­izen­ship. The roughly two dozen House Re­pub­lic­ans who want to avoid such ne­go­ti­ations “re­main scared to death of [House GOP] lead­er­ship on this,” Beck said.

Boehner has made it clear for months that he wants the House to vote on im­mig­ra­tion in a piece-by-piece fash­ion. He has cat­egor­ic­ally re­jec­ted the Sen­ate’s broad­er bill. The House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee has read­ied four oth­er im­mig­ra­tion bills that could come to the House floor at any time; none of them has Demo­crat­ic sup­port. Can­tor is work­ing on a bill that would give a path to cit­izen­ship to some un­doc­u­mented youth who were brought to the coun­try as chil­dren.

All of those meas­ures form the basis of a de­cidedly Re­pub­lic­an re­sponse to Obama’s chal­lenge to act on im­mig­ra­tion. Aguilar terms it as “no spe­cial path to cit­izen­ship,” mean­ing to leg­al­ize the un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants who qual­i­fy un­der a Re­pub­lic­an-defined set of con­di­tions, then let those now-leg­al im­mig­rants fig­ure out how to use ex­ist­ing chan­nels to be­come cit­izens if they so choose.

“It’s all out there. There is a con­ser­vat­ive an­swer that is “˜leg­al status.’ There is lead­er­ship and grown-ups in the House that un­der­stands it needs to get done,” said Tamar Jac­oby, a con­ser­vat­ive who runs the busi­ness-centered lobby group Im­mig­ra­tion­Works USA.

The only ques­tion is wheth­er House Re­pub­lic­ans will take up that mantle. The de­cision is likely to come from with­in the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence, where dif­fer­ent opin­ions reside, and the an­swer may not sur­face im­me­di­ately.

Ad­voc­ates on all sides fear de­feat in the post-shut­down en­vir­on­ment, and none smell vic­tory. That means the is­sue isn’t dead, but it could lie dormant for some time.

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