The Immigration Storm That Never Struck

The massive outcry against the Senate reform bill that many expected over the recess never materialized, leaving the House to tread cautiously ahead.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., listens to a question during a town hall, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, in Sun Lakes, Ariz. McCain defended his proposed immigration overhaul to an angry crowd in suburban Arizona in the latest sign that this border state will play a prominent role in the national immigration reform debate. 
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Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Aug. 28, 2013, 11:29 a.m.

Two months after the Sen­ate passed a sweep­ing im­mig­ra­tion bill, House mem­bers are re­turn­ing to the Cap­it­ol in the same place, more or less, where they left off — di­vided on im­mig­ra­tion, with no strategy to pass any­thing. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the is­sue wasn’t poleaxed out­right dur­ing the five-week Au­gust re­cess, a time-honored test­ing peri­od when op­pon­ents are the loudest and le­gis­la­tion is vul­ner­able to mes­saging cam­paigns. (Wit­ness the tea-party re­bel­lion in 2010, which con­gealed Re­pub­lic­ans’ re­pug­nance for Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law and ushered in a fresh crop of House GOP mem­bers who wres­ted con­trol of the peoples’ cham­ber from Demo­crats.)

This year, House Speak­er John Boehner wanted to use the sum­mer break to get some idea of what to do about im­mig­ra­tion in the fall. Au­gust al­lows mem­bers to re­flect, con­sult with their con­stitu­ents, and come back with a firmer sense of what they want to ac­com­plish — or de­rail — be­fore the ses­sion ends.

Boehner got a half­hearted thumbs-up to pro­ceed, which is no small de­vel­op­ment con­sid­er­ing that ad­voc­ates feared Au­gust would be the most vul­ner­able time in their ef­forts to leg­al­ize 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. Vet­er­an im­mig­ra­tion lob­by­ists re­mem­ber all too clearly the House’s 2006 Au­gust re­volt, ar­ranged by then-Speak­er Den­nis Hastert, against a sim­il­ar im­mig­ra­tion bill. It ul­ti­mately killed the ef­fort.

Things are dif­fer­ent this time. “Au­gust left mem­bers free to make up their own minds. It told every­body that this isn’t ‘the’ is­sue,” said Bruce Mor­ris­on, a former Demo­crat­ic rep­res­ent­at­ive from Con­necti­c­ut who now lob­bies on im­mig­ra­tion for IEEE-USA, an en­gin­eers’ as­so­ci­ation. “There’s not a whole lot of ap­par­ent en­ergy to get riled up about this, com­pared to oth­er is­sues.”

Pub­lic opin­ion on an im­mig­ra­tion fix, in­clud­ing leg­al­iz­ing the un­doc­u­mented pop­u­la­tion, re­mains gen­er­ally pos­it­ive. Polls show that a healthy ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans want Con­gress to act on the is­sue, and most are per­fectly OK with a path to cit­izen­ship for people without pa­pers. In a re­cent United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll, 59 per­cent of re­spond­ents said they sup­port the Sen­ate bill or a ver­sion with more bor­der se­cur­ity, while only 20 per­cent said the House should do noth­ing on im­mig­ra­tion and thus quash the re­form ef­fort.

But this is a na­tion­al view­point, re­flect­ing the grow­ing strength of His­pan­ic voters. It is of no help to most House Re­pub­lic­ans. “It doesn’t mat­ter to the vast, over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­an con­gress­men and -wo­men what the His­pan­ic com­munity thinks,” Mor­ris­on said. “Fear is what makes mem­bers act. Their fears are all over their right shoulder.”

The con­ser­vat­ive strong­holds that most House GOP mem­bers rep­res­ent are not for­giv­ing of votes fa­vor­ing le­gis­la­tion viewed as lib­er­al or mod­er­ate, even by Re­pub­lic­ans who rep­res­ent a high per­cent­age of His­pan­ics. Only 24 Re­pub­lic­ans hold seats with a His­pan­ic con­stitu­ency of 25 per­cent or high­er, ac­cord­ing to The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port. (Only a few of those are among the 24 Re­pub­lic­ans who pub­licly fa­vor a path to cit­izen­ship.) Half of those dis­tricts voted over­whelm­ing for Mitt Rom­ney in 2012, while only four went for Obama.

But im­mig­ra­tion isn’t GOP mem­bers’ ma­jor con­cern. They spent most of the re­cess talk­ing about Obama­care and fisc­al is­sues. Ab­sent a dom­in­ant protest against an im­mig­ra­tion over­haul, pub­lic ac­cept­ance may be widen­ing by de­fault.

Re­pub­lic­ans are “wait­ing to see how the dust settles in Au­gust. I think when the dust settles they will find we have won,” said Ali Noor­ani, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Im­mig­ra­tion For­um, a pro-re­form group.

“Won” may be a bit strong, un­less one’s defin­i­tion of win­ning is not los­ing. The re­form ef­fort did, in fact, inch for­ward in Au­gust. The num­ber of House Re­pub­lic­ans who made some sort of pos­it­ive state­ment about a path to cit­izen­ship for the un­doc­u­mented pop­u­la­tion grew from 18 to 24. “I’m not say­ing that’s the biggest num­ber in the world,” Noor­ani ac­know­ledged, “but these are people who are not bend­ing back­wards. They are mov­ing to­ward us.”

A case in point is Rep. Jason Chaf­fetz, R-Utah, who owes his con­gres­sion­al seat to im­mig­ra­tion hard-liners who sup­por­ted his 2008 primary cam­paign against long­time im­mig­ra­tion-re­form ad­voc­ate Chris Can­non. Chaf­fetz said this at a re­cent town-hall meet­ing: “There should be a path­way to cit­izen­ship — not a spe­cial path­way, and not no path­way.” Those words are tough to parse, but they are cer­tainly not like the “over my dead body” mes­sage the GOP lobbed at Obama­care in 2010 and at im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion in 2006.

House Re­pub­lic­ans still aren’t will­ing to fall on their swords for a big im­mig­ra­tion bill. But their mildly pos­it­ive state­ments give cre­dence to the as­ser­tion that a siz­able group — no one quite knows how many — would go along with one if it came up.

A cadre of op­pon­ents, led by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, will do any­thing to stop even small pieces of an im­mig­ra­tion over­haul, Boehner’s pre­ferred ap­proach. In King’s view, even the most con­ser­vat­ive of House im­mig­ra­tion bills would lead to a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee with the Sen­ate that would force mem­bers to swal­low a path to cit­izen­ship. King’s camp is hefty enough — es­tim­ates range from 30 to 70 mem­bers — to stop any im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion from passing the House un­less Demo­crats pitch in, which is not guar­an­teed.

Al­though op­pon­ents didn’t mul­tiply in Au­gust, that alone won’t get im­mig­ra­tion re­form across the fin­ish line. The next step is for Boehner to de­term­ine that it’s safe to put le­gis­la­tion on the floor. The ab­sence of a ma­jor up­ris­ing against the Sen­ate bill may help in­form that de­cision, but it doesn’t dis­sip­ate the con­sid­er­able pres­sure he would face with­in his caucus if he at­tempts to pass a GOP im­mig­ra­tion pack­age. It’s still safer for him to do noth­ing. The key dif­fer­ence from earli­er de­bates is that it may also be ac­cept­able to do something.

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