Democrats Just Threw Down a Deadline For Immigration Reform. Here’s What Happens Next.

Their message: Act by July 31, or President Obama will take strong executive action.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), center, with Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), from left, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Sen. Patty Murray (D-NV) hold a press conference to urge the House to enact immigration reform at the U.S. Capitol on May 22, 2014 in Washington, DC. Senate democrats called out House Speaker John Boehner for letting nearly a year pass without taking action since the Senate sent over a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
May 22, 2014, 3:59 p.m.

It’s been al­most a year since the Sen­ate passed com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

The Cap­it­ol was packed with ad­voc­ates. Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden presided over the vote, and Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id had sen­at­ors cast votes from their desks, a rare move to un­der­score the his­tor­ic nature of the day. Un­doc­u­mented stu­dents filled the Sen­ate gal­lery, and shook their hands in the air — a si­lent ges­ture in place of ap­plause — with each “aye” vote cast.

The kind of op­tim­ism that per­meated that day has all but dis­ap­peared from Cap­it­ol Hill.

Now, Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­ers have set a hard dead­line for the Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled House to move on com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form: Ju­ly 31, that last day the House is in ses­sion be­fore Au­gust re­cess.

“They have about a six-week win­dow, from June 10 after the last Re­pub­lic­an primary till the Au­gust re­cess,” the Sen­ate’s No. 3 Demo­crat, Chuck Schu­mer, said Thursday at a press con­fer­ence. “If they don’t pass im­mig­ra­tion re­form then, the pres­id­ent will have no choice but to act on his own.”

Re­id gave one of his strongest en­dorse­ments yet of Pres­id­ent Obama tak­ing strong ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion on de­port­a­tion policy this year. Un­der pres­sure from im­mig­ra­tion ad­voc­ates, in­clud­ing the Na­tion­al Coun­cil of La Raza pres­id­ent call­ing him “de­port­er-in-chief,” Obama ordered Home­land Se­cur­ity Sec­ret­ary Jeh John­son in March to re­view the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ap­proach to de­port­a­tions and re­com­mend pos­sible changes. The res­ult of that re­view could come in June.

“We’re will­ing to wait an­oth­er six weeks, but at the end of six weeks, if something hasn’t been done, then there’s go­ing to have to be a move made,” Re­id said. “And it’s too bad we have to do that, be­cause we all know things can be done ad­min­is­trat­ively, but it’s bet­ter to change the law.”

The concept of a threat of ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion in the face of House GOP in­ac­tion has ac­tu­ally been floated be­fore, by Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Marco Ru­bio. Re­call that Ru­bio was one of the sen­at­ors who craf­ted the Sen­ate im­mig­ra­tion bill, but he’s largely turned away from the is­sue since.

Demo­crats have also called out House Re­pub­lic­ans for say­ing they can’t pass im­mig­ra­tion re­form be­cause they can’t trust Pres­id­ent Obama to en­force the law. “Let’s pass im­mig­ra­tion re­form today, make it take ef­fect at the be­gin­ning of 2017,” Re­id said. “If Re­pub­lic­ans don’t trust Pres­id­ent Obama, let’s give them a chance to im­ple­ment the bill un­der Pres­id­ent Rand Paul or Pres­id­ent Theodore Cruz.”

(Sen. Ted Cruz’s first name is ac­tu­ally Ra­fael, but mov­ing on….) Schu­mer has pre­vi­ously brought up the idea of chan­ging the Sen­ate bill so that it doesn’t take ef­fect un­til Obama is out of of­fice. Now, Re­id has form­al­ized it and pack­aged it as a “com­prom­ise.”

It’s un­clear how ex­actly that would hap­pen. And House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship im­me­di­ately shot the plan down. “Such a scen­ario would elim­in­ate any in­cent­ive for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to act on bor­der se­cur­ity or en­force the law for the re­mainder of Pres­id­ent Obama’s term,” said Boehner spokes­man Mi­chael Steel.

House Re­pub­lic­ans haven’t ruled out im­ple­ment­ing im­mig­ra­tion re­form this year. “There’s nobody more in­ter­ested in fix­ing this prob­lem than I am,” Boehner said Thursday.

But the grow­ing sense on the Hill is that the win­dow for any sort of im­mig­ra­tion-re­lated bill is rap­idly clos­ing. Just take this mod­est House pro­pos­al to al­low “Dream­ers” to en­list in the mil­it­ary and earn leg­al status. Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor has said he sup­ports it in prin­ciple, but it was blocked from com­ing to the House floor this week on a must-pass de­fense bill. And its pro­spects as a stan­dalone meas­ure later this year are un­cer­tain.

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Jeff Flake of Ari­zona, who also helped craft last year’s Sen­ate im­mig­ra­tion bill, agreed that if the House doesn’t move by Ju­ly 31, then re­form is “not get­ting done.”

But Flake ac­know­ledged the mis­trust that House Re­pub­lic­ans say is pre­vent­ing them from mo­bil­iz­ing now. “My point has al­ways been, 95 per­cent of this will be en­acted by a fu­ture pres­id­ent any­way if we don’t do any­thing,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “I don’t think it’s a reas­on­able ex­cuse not to move ahead, but there is a lot of mis­trust, and to talk about fur­ther ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion just fur­thers that, so it’s not a good thing.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is in­creas­ingly look­ing at ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions to take where Con­gress won’t act. On de­port­a­tions, Obama is walk­ing a thin line. On the one hand, ad­voc­ates have taken the pres­id­ent to task for what they view as his dis­mal re­cord on de­port­a­tions, and His­pan­ic sup­port for the pres­id­ent has been drop­ping. On the oth­er, strong ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion could be in­ter­preted as killing im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

The cal­cu­la­tion rests with House ac­tion this year, and once it be­comes abund­antly clear that there won’t be any, Obama will be in a more flex­ible po­s­i­tion to act.

Re­pub­lic­ans are now try­ing to cri­ti­cize Demo­crat­ic ef­forts on im­mig­ra­tion re­form as politi­ciz­ing an is­sue rather than look­ing for com­prom­ise. A Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee spokes­per­son poin­ted out that Demo­crats failed to act in 2009 and 2010, when they held the House, Sen­ate, and White House.

“Im­mig­ra­tion re­form be­comes im­port­ant to Demo­crats when it is elec­tion time,” said RNC spokes­wo­man Izzy Santa. “Where was Harry Re­id’s daily in­dig­na­tion about the pres­id­ent’s in­ac­tion on fam­ily uni­fic­a­tion when Demo­crats had a su­per­ma­jor­ity?”

But the GOP will have to come to grips with the polit­ic­al rami­fic­a­tions, should their party end up be­ing per­ceived as killing im­mig­ra­tion re­form. That sense of ur­gency hasn’t taken hold just yet, giv­en how so few Re­pub­lic­ans are viewed as vul­ner­able in this year’s elec­tions over the is­sue of im­mig­ra­tion.

“For the midterm elec­tion, I don’t think it makes much dif­fer­ence,” Flake said. “For the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, I think it’s dev­ast­at­ing for Re­pub­lic­ans. I do think we gotta move.”

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