Immigration Reform 2013: It's Not Dead Yet

On July 10, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) met with members of his party to discuss how to proceed with immigration reform in the House of Representatives now that the Senate has passed a bipartisan, comprehensive reform bill. Their options were to proceed with a comprehensive bill developed by the House's bipartisan Gang of Eight, or continue with a legislative package of individual bills, each of which would address a separate facet of immigration. If they chose the first option, they would have a chance of reaching agreement in a joint House-Senate conference committee. If they choose the other, it might not kill reform, but would make it more difficult to achieve.

The speaker and his party have announced their decision (skip to 2:56). They chose the more difficult, piecemeal approach, preferring to take their chances with voters during next year’s midterm elections if this Congress fails to pass immigration reform.

No one expected the House to consider the Senate bill. Getting the two chambers of Congress to get past partisanship has become just as difficult as getting the parties within in each body to agree with each other. But a comprehensive bill that did not include the words “pathway to citizenship" and merely called it something else, may have been able to be reconciled in conference and passed into law.

Proceeding with the piecemeal approach has not been favored by the Senate, as it will involve considering each area of the issue — border security, legalization, E-Verify, and visas — as separate legislation. The status quo suggests that, with this approach, the House will pass legislation on strict party-line votes, and the Senate will ignore them. The result: a problem left unsolved.

As I speculated in an earlier article, the House's piecemeal approach will put the Senate in the position of showing how important it considers immigration reform. Is it important enough to accept that approach, passing bills where there is agreement and working through differences on those that require it? On Thursday, July 11, Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), both Senate members of the Gang of Eight, indicated the answer may be “yes.”

It should also be noted that following the GOP meeting, Speaker Boehner immediately started reaching out to key Democratic leaders in the House to measure support for the piecemeal approach.

The critical issue is the pathway to citizenship. Schumer would accept piecemeal legislation if one of those pieces includes such a process. Would calling the process "a pathway to permanent resident status with potential for future citizenship" satisfy those in the GOP who are opposed to a pathway to citizenship? As with most legislation or contracts, wording is important. Could semantics be all that is standing in the way of agreement?

I wrote three weeks ago that Boehner would effectively kill immigration reform in this Congress by applying the Hastert rule and taking a piecemeal approach. Now that the decision to proceed in that fashion has been made, Schumer and McCain appear to be holding a flashlight at the other end of the tunnel. The House will not rush. The August recess will provide members of Congress with an opportunity to hear from their constituents. Americans want immigration reform. They want a fairer and simpler system.

With compromise, the expectation is that each party gives something up to gain something. With collaboration, sides would work together so that both get what they want without having to give anything up. Pathway to permanent resident status, with potential for future citizenship, could be the collaboration that gets the job done.

Immigration reform may be on life support now that the GOP has made its decision about how immigration reform legislation will be handled in the House. It is now up to representatives and senators to bring immigration reform back to life — or pull the plug.