Impatient Advocates for Immigration Reform Will Even Take It Piece by Piece From House

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 23, 2013, while testifying before the House Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security hearing: "Addressing the Immigration Status of Illegal Immigrants Brought to the United States as Children". (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
National Journal
Fawn Johnson and Elahe Izadi
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Fawn Johnson Elahe Izadi
Sept. 18, 2013, 3:36 p.m.

The specter of a gov­ern­ment shut­down, the loom­ing debt ceil­ing, and po­ten­tial mil­it­ary strikes in Syr­ia have all dis­trac­ted Con­gress from mov­ing on im­mig­ra­tion re­form. But law­makers and ad­voc­ates have grown weary in wait­ing for the pro­cess to re­start.

In a tele­vised in­ter­view with Telemundo on Tues­day, Pres­id­ent Obama ap­peared to sig­nal that, des­pite his de­sire for the House to pass a com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form bill, he would be open to a piece­meal ap­proach.

“If in fact Speak­er [John] Boehner thinks that pro­ced­ur­ally he has to jump through a series of hoops — you know, I’m happy to let the House work its will as long as the bill that ends up on my desk speaks to the cent­ral is­sues that have to be re­solved,” Obama said. Those cent­ral is­sues, he said, in­clude se­cur­ing the bor­der, pen­al­iz­ing em­ploy­ers tak­ing ad­vant­age of un­doc­u­mented work­ers, im­prov­ing the leg­al im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem, and cre­at­ing a path­way to cit­izen­ship.

“If those ele­ments are con­tained in a bill—wheth­er they come through the House a little bit at a time or they come in one fell swoop — I’m less con­cerned about pro­cess; I’m more in­ter­ested in mak­ing sure it gets done,” Obama ad­ded.

The step-by-step ap­proach has been the one favored by House lead­er­ship, which wel­comed Obama’s com­ments.

“If im­mig­ra­tion re­form is go­ing to work, it is es­sen­tial that we have the con­fid­ence of the Amer­ic­an people that it’s done the right way,” said Boehner spokes­man Brendan Buck. “That means a de­lib­er­ate, step-by-step ap­proach, not an­oth­er massive Obama­care-style bill that people don’t un­der­stand.”

Demo­crats and re­form ad­voc­ates have long bristled at the idea of passing im­mig­ra­tion re­form in pieces, in part out of a fear that it was an ef­fort to slow re­form or gut a path­way to cit­izen­ship, a cent­ral com­pon­ent ad­voc­ates have been push­ing.

Now that the polit­ic­al dust has settled in the months after the Sen­ate passed its com­pre­hens­ive bill, the de­sire for a com­pre­hens­ive bill in the House is ec­lipsed by the real­ity that one won’t hit the floor.

“Look, you got cof­fee, toast, and later on in the day, you’re go­ing to bring me the eggs and ba­con and juice, I’m good with that — as long as at the end of the day, I get a full meal,” said Rep. Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez, D-Ill., a lead­er on im­mig­ra­tion re­form. “The Re­pub­lic­ans are in the ma­jor­ity, and we should all come to that un­der­stand­ing: They’re in the ma­jor­ity and they get to dic­tate. But what the Re­pub­lic­ans also to have to un­der­stand is a ma­jor­ity of mem­bers of Con­gress are ready to vote for com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form and it’s not a secret.”

Boehner has said he won’t put re­form on the floor without a ma­jor­ity of House Re­pub­lic­ans back­ing it.

Rep. Raul Gri­jalva, D-Ar­iz., took Obama’s com­ments to mean that passing im­mig­ra­tion bills one at a time or even passing a single im­mig­ra­tion-re­lated bill in the House may be enough of a hook to move in­to con­fer­ence with the Sen­ate.

“It makes some sense. But I think the de­sire, at least from con­stitu­ents and the pub­lic, is for something com­pre­hens­ive. As long as Boehner hides be­hind the ma­jor­ity of the ma­jor­ity, it looks like we’re go­ing to see piece­meals,” Gri­jalva said.

There have also been many dis­cus­sions in the caucus of a Demo­crat­ic place­hold­er bill, al­though those con­ver­sa­tions have not yet co­alesced in­to a plan, ac­cord­ing to some con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats.

The bor­der-se­cur­ity por­tion of the whole de­bate ap­pears to be the one that will have the easi­est time in the House. A bill by House Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mi­chael Mc­Caul, R-Texas, passed un­an­im­ously out of com­mit­tee, with a num­ber of Demo­crats sig­nal­ing they prefer it to the $46 bil­lion Sen­ate se­cur­ity pro­vi­sions. Un­der the House meas­ure, the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment first would have to de­vel­op a bor­der-se­cur­ity plan — sub­ject to con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al — that would elim­in­ate 90 per­cent of il­leg­al bor­der cross­ings with­in five years.

Mc­Caul called the Sen­ate ap­proach to bor­der se­cur­ity “a little mis­guided be­cause you just threw a bunch of money at the prob­lem without any strategy or plan, so it was an ir­re­spons­ible bill.” Mc­Caul said he an­ti­cip­ated a vote on his bill as early as Oc­to­ber, but that it would likely be timed with oth­er im­mig­ra­tion-re­lated bills.

Those oth­er bills are mainly com­ing from the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, which has passed le­gis­la­tion re­lated to high-skilled and ag­ri­cul­tur­al work­ers and in­teri­or en­force­ment. But the thorn­i­est of is­sues in the House — a path­way to cit­izen­ship — hasn’t been touched.

The think­ing pri­or to Septem­ber had been that the so-called Kids Act, from Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor and House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte, both R-Va., could per­haps start the pro­cess to ad­dress what to do with those un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants already in the U.S.

The in­tent of the le­gis­la­tion is to provide a leg­al­iz­a­tion mech­an­ism for chil­dren brought to the U.S. il­leg­ally. But a House Ju­di­ciary aide says that the bill is still be­ing draf­ted and lacks a chief spon­sor, so no date has been set for its in­tro­duc­tion.

“We still need to find the ap­pro­pri­ate leg­al status for those who are not law­fully present and those who, through no fault of their own, were brought in­to the U.S. by their par­ents at a young age, but we must have en­force­ment as a pre­requis­ite,” Good­latte said in a state­ment.

Mean­while, im­mig­ra­tion-re­form ad­voc­ates on Wed­nes­day showed no sign of back­ing off their de­mands that Obama change de­port­a­tion policies on his own, des­pite his ex­pressed con­cern that he doesn’t have the leg­al au­thor­ity. Sev­en un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants chained them­selves to the fence in front of the White House shout­ing “Not one more!” in both Span­ish and Eng­lish. They were ar­res­ted with­in an hour.

Obama said dur­ing the Tues­day in­ter­view on Telemundo that halt­ing all de­port­a­tions is “not an op­tion” and “would be very dif­fi­cult to de­fend leg­ally.” His words ef­fect­ively ruled out a White-House-only al­tern­at­ive to im­mig­ra­tion re­form in Con­gress — some­times called Plan B — that ad­voc­ates have said would be their fo­cus if a bill doesn’t pass this year.

“He no want to, but yeah, he can,” said His­pan­ic act­iv­ist Ben­jamin Hehua in broken Eng­lish, as his com­pan­ions were be­ing ar­res­ted.

The ad­voc­ates’ in­sist­ence that Obama has the power to change de­port­a­tion policies without Con­gress il­lus­trates the strik­ing dif­fer­ence between their point of view and that of con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, who be­lieve Obama ex­ceeded his au­thor­ity in de­fer­ring de­port­a­tions for un­doc­u­mented youth last year. Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., has warned Re­pub­lic­ans that Obama could con­tin­ue such a power grab if law­makers don’t act on im­mig­ra­tion this year.

Yet ad­voc­ates brush off the leg­al hes­it­a­tion from Obama, not­ing that he made the same ar­gu­ment about the de­ferred ac­tion pro­gram for so-called “Dream­ers,” un­doc­u­mented young adults who were brought to the United States as chil­dren. “Be­fore de­ferred ac­tion, the same ar­gu­ment was giv­en,” said Jacinta Gonza­lez, a lead or­gan­izer for the Con­gress of Day Laborers. “When Con­gress doesn’t act and he wants to be on the side of justice, he can do it.”

As move­ment on im­mig­ra­tion re­mains stalled in the House, some con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats still think Obama should use Plan B as lever­age.

“If the pat­tern here con­tin­ues, for act­iv­ists, ad­voc­ates, and a lot of Demo­crat­ic mem­bers of this House, the pres­sure will be on the White House to do Plan B,” Gri­jalva said.

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