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.