Politics, not policy, is what fuels the standoff between Republicans and Democrats over immigration reform.
At least according to Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a longtime immigration reform advocate. The Democratic congressman from Illinois says that the essential problem in the immigration debate is not a fundamental disagreement over policy issues — it’s “the political posturing of both parties.”
Gutierrez said Thursday at a National Journal policy summit underwritten by Qualcomm that compromise is necessary for comprehensive reform. If the decision is between “citizenship for all or reform for no one,” he said, “we’re going to get reform for no one.”
Former Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour spoke after Gutierrez, affirming the need for change. “The status quo is about the worst option that we have,” he said. Barbour said that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other members of leadership are “seriously committed” to passing reform in the near future.
But for all the rhetoric highlighting common ground between the two — the need for reform now — differences remain on specific issues.
Barbour pointed to border security as one of the larger policy debates that an immigration reform deal will have to overcome in the House. A recent poll from Pew Research showed that the majority of Republicans think that strengthened border control should be in place before undocumented immigrants can apply for legal status in the U.S.; 60 percent of Democrats, however, think undocumented immigrants should be allowed to apply for legal status while border security is being improved.
Differences like this one have made a House deal look less likely than it might have just a few months ago. In January, President Obama predicted that the House would pass reform in 2014. In the same month, Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., declared immigration reform a top priority for 2014, and the Republican Party released a document outlining its principles on immigration. Fast forward to May and things look more bleak. Boehner has returned to blaming the president for the impasse over immigration; meanwhile, House Republicans blocked an immigration vote on Wednesday.
Much of the debate among panel participants this Tuesday centered around the existence — or lack thereof — of a consensus on immigration policy. Doug Holtz-Eakin, the president of American Action Forum, said that he sees “no serious disagreement” between Democrats and Republicans over border security, visa, and legal status issues. Others echoed the sentiment: Barbour had said earlier that Republicans are largely in favor of reform, and Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA, said that the question is not if, but when, House Republicans will pass reform.
Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, pushed back on Holtz-Eakin’s idea of a consensus. The coalition for reform, he said, is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” He foresaw a replay of a landmark 1986 immigration bill that fell far short of expectations, arguing that reform in its current shape will do little to better the present situation.