One Year After Immigration Reform Passed the Senate, It’s Still Stalled Out

The optimism of that day in 2013 has all but disappeared on Capitol Hill.

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer puts is hand on the shoulder of Republican Sen. John McCain while speaking to reporters following a vote on the immigration bill on June 27, 2013 at the U.S. Capitol.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
June 27, 2014, 1:15 a.m.

A year ago today, Demo­crat­ic Sen. Chuck Schu­mer lit­er­ally back­slapped Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Mc­Cain, and walked arm-in-arm away from a huge gath­er­ing of re­port­ers de­clar­ing a massive tri­umph: passing bi­par­tis­an com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

“We all gave. We all took. We all fought. We all smiled. And at the end of the day, we held hands and walked out here to­geth­er,” Schu­mer said at the time.

Fast for­ward to Thursday, when Schu­mer stood among top House and Sen­ate Demo­crats. Not a Re­pub­lic­an was in sight. And Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id de­cided to quote Na­ked Gun‘s Leslie Nielsen to de­scribe what the House GOP has done with im­mig­ra­tion: “Do­ing noth­ing is hard to do. You nev­er know when you’re fin­ished.”

The mo­mentum in­ten­ded by 68 sen­at­ors sign­ing on to such a con­ten­tious is­sue was sup­posed to be like a tid­al wave that the House couldn’t ig­nore. Today, the Cap­it­ol is empty, with law­makers back in their home dis­tricts, and the pro­spects for im­mig­ra­tion re­form in the House look worse than they have all year.

In­deed, Re­pub­lic­ans have spent the last few months ar­guing that they won’t pass im­mig­ra­tion re­form be­cause they can’t trust the pres­id­ent to en­force the laws already on the books. There’s little chance that that cri­ti­cism will go away, giv­en that the House is pre­par­ing to sue the pres­id­ent over his use of ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions. It’s un­clear what par­tic­u­lar ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions will be part of that law­suit, but an im­mig­ra­tion-re­lated one—De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals—has of­ten been the tar­get of Re­pub­lic­an cri­ti­cism.

“Your chance to play a role in how im­mig­ra­tion and de­port­a­tion policies are car­ried out this year is over.” — Rep. Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez to House Re­pub­lic­ans.

And then there’s the crisis stem­ming from thou­sands of un­ac­com­pan­ied chil­dren from Cent­ral Amer­ica cross­ing the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der in re­cord num­bers. Re­pub­lic­ans have laid the blame on Obama for that, say­ing that, in their view, that lax de­port­a­tion policy has en­cour­aged the mi­gra­tion.

Many are flee­ing from vi­ol­ence, but the ad­min­is­tra­tion has ac­know­ledged that false ru­mors are play­ing a role.

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Jeff Flake, part of the bi­par­tis­an Gang of Eight that craf­ted the Sen­ate’s im­mig­ra­tion bill, said the bor­der crisis has made it tough­er to pass im­mig­ra­tion re­form in the short term.

“We’ve long said that this no­tion, this nar­rat­ive that’s de­veloped that the pres­id­ent isn’t will­ing to en­force the laws and is act­ing uni­lat­er­ally, just makes it more dif­fi­cult to move ahead,” Flake said. “You know, I had hoped one year ago that at this point we would have a bill that would have been signed by the pres­id­ent. I thought that would be the case. But it’s not happened.”

There’s also a di­vide grow­ing among Demo­crats; House and Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship still say that House Re­pub­lic­ans have the month of Ju­ly to move re­form. “If we don’t have some in­dic­a­tion in the month of Ju­ly that there will be a hear­ing or a bill sched­uled for the floor, it seems there is little chance for us to pass such a bill,” House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi said Thursday.

That’s the White House’s time­frame. The ad­min­is­tra­tion delayed the res­ults of a Home­land Se­cur­ity re­view of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cur­rent de­port­a­tion policy to make them more “hu­mane,” in or­der to give the House GOP as much room as pos­sible to pass re­form.

But one of the most bullish and long­time ad­voc­ates for re­form said it’s good as dead. “Your chance to play a role in how im­mig­ra­tion and de­port­a­tion policies are car­ried out this year is over,” Demo­crat­ic Rep. Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez said to Re­pub­lic­ans, on the House floor. He ad­ded that it’s up to the pres­id­ent to “act with­in the ex­ist­ing law to en­sure that our de­port­a­tion policies are more hu­mane.”

While the dif­fer­ence over the le­gis­lat­ive dead­line may not mat­ter much to cas­u­al ob­serv­ers, it mat­ters a lot to those who’ve long been agit­at­ing for Pres­id­ent Obama to take ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion re­lat­ing to de­port­a­tions. To them, wait­ing an­oth­er month—dur­ing which Re­pub­lic­ans will move to sue the pres­id­ent—means more de­port­a­tions that would not have happened oth­er­wise.

The likely ad­min­is­trat­ive ac­tion from the White House isn’t ex­pec­ted to be broad and sweep­ing in scope. But it may go some way to­ward al­le­vi­at­ing what ad­voc­ates de­cry as a re­cord-high num­ber of de­port­a­tions, and in re­pair­ing the pres­id­ent’s re­la­tion­ship with Latino voters. In the mean­time, Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ings on his hand­ling of im­mig­ra­tion have dropped to their low­est levels yet, at 31 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent poll from Gal­lup.

Con­gress of­ten works through dead­lines. Some of the most con­ten­tious is­sues and pieces of le­gis­la­tion made it through only be­cause law­makers were un­der the gun and had to pass something (think “cliffs”).

But the cur­rent dead­line for im­mig­ra­tion isn’t likely to be as pro­duct­ive. The elect­or­al con­sequences Re­pub­lic­ans face in 2014 over fail­ing to move re­form in the House are slim. So to many in the House GOP, this sum­mer dead­line isn’t much of a dead­line at all—the “im­mig­ra­tion cliff” is nonex­ist­ent.

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