Why Even the Pope Cannot Move Congress on Immigration

Pope Francis highlighted the issue Thursday, but too much has already poisoned the well.

MOLLY RILEY/AFP/Getty Images
Sept. 24, 2015, 4:32 p.m.

If Pope Fran­cis ever had a mes­sage for Wash­ing­ton, it was to look more closely at how the Amer­ic­an people, and the politi­cians who lead them, re­act to im­mig­rants.

“In re­cent cen­tur­ies, mil­lions of people came to this land to pur­sue their dream of build­ing a fu­ture in free­dom. We, the people of this con­tin­ent, are not fear­ful of for­eign­ers, be­cause most of us were once for­eign­ers,” the pope said be­fore a joint meet­ing of Con­gress Thursday.

After years of polit­ic­al di­vide over how to deal with the coun­try’s south­ern bor­der, a rush of young mi­grants and now a Syr­i­an refugee crisis, the pope urged Wash­ing­ton to take a new and more col­lab­or­at­ive ap­proach to tack­ling mi­gra­tion. Ad­voc­ates, however, fear the pontiff’s mes­sage will do little to ease nativ­ism and anti-im­mig­rant sen­ti­ment on the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign trail and in the halls of Con­gress.

“I don’t want to be pess­im­ist­ic,” said Frank Sharry, the founder and ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Amer­ica’s Voice, an im­mig­ra­tion re­form group based in D.C. “But, the prob­lem is that there is a war for the Re­pub­lic­an soul on im­mig­ra­tion between what is po­litely called the ‘white iden­tity wing’ of the party and the wing that wants to mod­ern­ize. Un­for­tu­nately, the hard­liners are win­ning right now.”

In 2013, when the Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled Sen­ate passed a com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion bill, ad­voc­ates were op­tim­ist­ic that an over­haul was near. That bill would have provided a path to cit­izen­ship for mil­lions of im­mig­rants already in the coun­try il­leg­ally. But House Speak­er John Boehner—a Cath­ol­ic who in­vited the pope to speak Thursday, and was vis­ibly emo­tion­al dur­ing the pope’s vis­it—nev­er brought it to the floor fin the House for a vote. His con­fer­ence was deeply di­vided. And, ad­voc­ates say noth­ing has changed there. If any­thing, a Re­pub­lic­an wave elec­tion in 2014 that landed Re­pub­lic­an Mitch Mc­Con­nell as the lead­er of the Sen­ate has only made hopes of im­mig­ra­tion re­form dim­mer ahead of a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

“If Boehner is moved by the pope and really wants to help his coun­try and save his party, one could ima­gine a scen­ario where he falls on the sword to get it done and be­comes a pro­file in cour­age,” Sharry says.”Giv­en how weak his lead­er­ship on this is­sue was in the last con­gress and giv­en how much in­flu­ence [Iowa Rep.] Steve King has today over John Boehner, it is a long shot.”

For now, the de­bate about im­mig­ra­tion con­tin­ues in the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial race, with Don­ald Trump lead­ing the pack with prom­ises of bor­der walls and halt­ing im­mig­ra­tion. The rhet­or­ic has brought out the more con­ser­vat­ive po­s­i­tions with­in all of the can­did­ates, with Jeb Bush re­fer­ring to im­mig­rants born in the U.S. to un­doc­u­mented par­ents as “an­chor ba­bies.”

But Tamar Jac­oby, who is pres­id­ent and CEO of Im­mig­ra­tion­Works and ad­voc­ates for busi­ness-minded re­form says that im­mig­ra­tion re­form has been de­terred for many reas­ons even bey­ond the cur­rent Re­pub­lic­an de­bate. She says that the pres­id­ent’s ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions made it hard for Re­pub­lic­ans to feel mo­tiv­ated to act, as their con­stitu­en­cies were in­censed by the pres­id­ent’s use of his pen. And a rush of thou­sands of un­ac­com­pan­ied minors cross­ing in­to the U.S. to flee gang vi­ol­ence in Cent­ral Amer­ica last sum­mer took a toll as Amer­ic­ans watched the crisis on their tele­vi­sion screens.

“There are many of us who are wait­ing for Con­gress to act on im­mig­ra­tion, but the sad truth is that some of the things that have happened in the last year have so poisoned the at­mo­sphere that it is hard to see even how the pope can move Con­gress,” Jac­oby says.

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