While immigration reform is making slow progress in the Senate, convincing House Republicans to go along with it may be a tougher sell. After President Obama's reelection, the conventional wisdom was that if the Republican Party wants to remain relevant in the coming decades, it had better support reforming the nation's immigration laws to deal with the estimated 11 million undocumented workers already here and other related issues. It seems that while a sizable number of Republican senators recognize the need for reform, House Republicans did not get the memo. The issue was recently seen as one major piece of legislation that was "doable" in this legislative session, but that is far from certain, as recent events show.
One major stumbling block among Senate Republicans has been ensuring that while we deal with the undocumented workers already here, we also ensure that border security is improved to reduce future illegal immigration. It is estimated that of the illegal immigrants here now, just over half of them evaded border controls to get here (as opposed to arriving legally but over-staying their visa). Calls by conservatives to increase border security as a pre-condition to signing on to reform were met recently by President Obama warning Congress not to use that issue to construct unnecessary barriers to reform. In fact, since President Obama took office, the budget of the U.S. Border Patrol has increased substantially each year, and the number of apprehensions of illegal immigrants trying to cross the border, widely viewed as an indicator of the numbers of attempted illegal border crossings, are down by half in 2012 compared to 2008. While the recession in the U.S. probably attracted fewer undocumented immigrants, it is likely that border security is much improved. Nonetheless, Senate Republicans have demanded, and are likely to receive, even greater security measures in order to win their votes. In fact, a new attempt to address these concerns was presented by Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight that is crafting the Senate's reform bill, on Wednesday.
Though efforts in the Senate appear promising , and we hear Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicting passage of a comprehensive bill in the Senate by July 4, in the House, it's a different story. It was announced today that talks in the House have stalled and are near collapse. A major point of dispute is whether workers who are on the "pathway to citizenship" will have access to government-sponsored health care during that period. The GOP opposes such access, while Democrats favor it, since they would be paying taxes during the period in question. Another reported hurdle in the House is that some GOP members believe that the pathway to citizenship amounts to amnesty and will only encourage more illegal immigration. Many too are unconvinced that immigration reform will win over Hispanics to the GOP. A reported 71% of Hispanics supported President Obama's reelection.
Key senators have already announced that comprehensive reform cannot omit the pathway to citizenship, so it appears that that issue cannot be sidestepped. Although comprehensive reform may not pass the House, pieces of the Senate proposal could still make it through, such as approving more visas for highly skilled (think STEM) workers. But that would be a big disappointment to supporters and another blow to President Obama's legislative goals, especially so soon after his gun background-check efforts failed this spring.