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Immigration Reform 2013: Why It Died and When It's Coming Back

A summer that started with a seemingly promising push toward comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate has fizzled out in the House just days before Congress takes a five-week recess. Although immigration reform advocates still hope to see a comprehensive bill pass this year, chances are next to nil that it will happen.   

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing last Tuesday on a Republican version of the DREAM Act (for now called the Kids Act), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte discussed legalizing undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children. Although this represents a concession by the GOP to immigration reform, and Republican leaders like House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) have voiced their support for finding a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, it has sparked fury among Democrats. White House spokesman Jay Carney called Boehner’s commitment to immigration reform “laughable,” reflecting widespread anger among immigration advocates who are upset by Boehner’s refusal to accept the Senate’s legislative package, which has stalled the creation of a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

But there’s little reason to believe that the House would have ever accepted an immigration reform bill concocted by the Democrat-controlled Senate — it was only a question of when the bill would be shot down.

The comprehensive bill passed by the Senate in June — acclaimed as the first major stab at immigration reform since 1986 — contains individual provisions popular with voters, like providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants along with stronger border security. But taken as a whole, the package lacks appeal. A Washington Post-ABC News poll revealed that 53% of voters prefer Boehner’s approach to reform, which would require that the reform measures be broken into several smaller bills. And while 30% of those polled strongly oppose the Senate bill, only 19% strongly support it.

Boehner is being widely blamed for blocking the Senate bill. But even if voters strongly supported the reform package, Boehner would not have risked his Speakership and legacy on it in a House that has consistently bucked against his leadership. Boehner faced a near-coup in January during his negotiations with Democrats over the fiscal cliff, and he barely squeezed out enough votes to retain his position as Speaker. His support has not grown back: a Washington Post analysis revealed that only 20% of Republican Representatives vote reliably with Boehner. This means it’s possible if Boehner was even interested in putting the Senate bill to a vote, he could be in violation of the Hastert rule, which stipulates that the speaker of the House won’t bring legislation to a floor vote unless it has the support of the “majority of the majority.” Boehner had little incentive and few resources to fight for the Senate bill.

Another popular refrain is that the growing Latino demographic would force House Republicans to soften their stance on immigration reform to stay in office. The numbers are certainly skewed against them: A recent poll of potential Latino voters in 24 Republican-held districts revealed that 61% plan to vote Democratic in the 2014 midterm elections, versus 19% Republican. There is also evidence Republicans could benefit handsomely from a change in policy: 50% of those polled said they would be more likely to vote Republican if the party took a more aggressive stance on passing immigration reform. 

But if Republicans need long-term changes in their immigration policies to remain competitive in the Latino population, they have little to gain from immigration reform in the short-run. An analysis written earlier this year by Nate Silver noted that of the 232 congressional districts controlled by Republicans, a mere 40 have populations that are more than 20% Hispanic, and only 16 of these are at least a third Hispanic, which means few Representatives have a serious electoral reason to push for reform that is not necessarily popular with the majority of their constituents. While this dawdling over legislation may shave the Republican majority in the House, the same analysis predicts that Republicans will take 50 or 51 seats in the Senate. It would be more advantageous for the GOP to hold the immigration reform debate after the midterm elections with an eye toward cultivating the Latino vote for 2016. 

There is little indication that a reform bill will pass the House this year. The House GOP recess planning kit — a policy tool to keep Representatives informed of their party’s priorities — hardly touched on immigration, emphasizing instead jobs and the economy as topics of discussion with their constituents. At the same time, Democratic aides and some members of the House “gang of seven” are floating a plan to invite House Republicans to town hall meetings during the recess to discuss immigration reform. Democrats like Rep. Xavier Becerra are treating it as an opportunity to force Republicans to engage seriously with immigration or risk being associated with the “Steve King faction of the Republican party.” King is a Representative from Iowa who made public remarks last week comparing immigrants who might qualify for residence under the DREAM Act to drug mules. It’s more likely that Republicans will content themselves with condemning King’s remarks while avoiding further discussion of immigration reform. It’s also more than likely that with just 9 legislative days in September, congressional Republicans and Democrats will be under greater pressure to find a way to continue funding the daily operations of the government and settling the debt ceiling debate than tackle a reform project. 

The bipartisan gang of seven Representatives is considering a plan, which is more restrictive than the Senate bill. This would create several piece of legislation dealing with border security, visas for workers, the E-Verify law, and a path to citizenship.  The House plan is considered much harsher than the Senate bill: undocumented immigrants would be put on a legally restrictive “probationary” status subject to revocation. It would also amend the E-Verify law that employers use to determine worker eligibility in the U.S. and create a longer, 15-year path to citizenship for illegal residents. Currently there is no schedule for when a vote would take place on the four pieces of immigration law being developed in the House, but Rep. Paul Ryan recently announced that a vote might take in October

With stiff resistance in the House, a speaker who doesn’t want to risk his job, little immediate political urgency on the right to attract Latinos and the August recess around the corner, the best bet is to not scount on a reform bill — comprehensive or otherwise — surfacing until next January, when reform measures will most likely be brought to the floor.

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