WASHINGTON – Time is growing short for Congress to act on wide-ranging immigration reform this year, but at least one Latino lawmaker remains optimistic that the House will consider legislation before members leave town for the August recess.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) is working with others on a proposal intended to resolve differences over how to proceed on the thorny issue. He maintains a reasonable chance exists to bring a reform measure to the House floor during the 113th Congress.
“Immigration reform is not dead because we are working it,” Diaz-Balart said. “I believe we have a 50/50 percent chance of accomplishing immigration reform. Today I think we are on the cusp. We’re getting the bipartisan support.”
What form any reform supported by Diaz-Balart may take remains unclear. In the past he has advocated for a solution that “strengthens our border, revitalizes the American economy, respects the rule of law and brings families together.”
“We have a historic opportunity to fix an immigration system that everyone recognizes is clearly broken,” he said.
But time is a consideration. The House will be in session for just 28 days in June and July before taking off the entire month of August and the first week of September. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), one of the most fervent supporters for immigration reform in the lower chamber, said the House likely will not act this session if legislation isn’t taken up by July 4.
“There are only 18 legislative days before the July 4th recess – before the campaign season takes over,” he said. “That is not a lot of time.”
Gutierrez urged the Republican leadership to “work together” to bring a reform measure to the floor, asserting it would pass with Democratic support and up to 80 votes on the GOP side.
“Let’s get this done for the American people,” he said.
But there is no indication the Republican majority is ready to move. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, responsible for handling the flow of immigration legislation, told reporters he is unaware of any plans to bring immigration reform to the House floor before the August recess.
Meanwhile, House Republican Leader Eric Cantor, of Virginia, facing a Tuesday primary challenge from Tea Party-backed candidate Dave Brat, has been emphasizing throughout the campaign his effort to block comprehensive immigration reform. Cantor’s organization has dispatched mailers to voters highlighting his role in blocking consideration of a Senate-passed immigration reform bill, referring to it as the “Obama-Reid plan to give illegal aliens amnesty.”
Since Cantor controls the flow of legislation to the floor, his support is vital to the future of any immigration reform bill.
To this point, the House has adopted only immigration legislation during the 113th Congress that reform proponents consider anathema to the cause. Rep. Steven King (R-Iowa), an avowed reform opponent, has succeeded in passing two bills – one passed last month to fund a $5 million investigation into the release of criminals from immigrant detention, and the other, adopted last year, to end Department of Homeland Security policies that allow the agency to delay deportations of young, undocumented immigrants.
Those measures drew criticism from Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who called passage of King’s proposals “inexcusable” and said that they do “nothing to fix our broken immigration system.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is on record saying he wants to address the immigration issue during the current congressional session but he has been unable to generate sufficient support among his fellow Republicans to move ahead. He has thus far agreed to impose the so-called Hastert Rule, an unofficial dictum that leads the leadership to offer only those bills that carry the support of a majority of the majority.
Republican leaders have tried to persuade members to hop on board. Led by Boehner, GOP leaders issued a set of immigration principles last January, for instance, drawing a negative reaction from the caucus and the subject was dropped.
Boehner also has asserted the House won’t get behind any immigration measure unless it trusts President Obama, a firm reform proponent, to enforce the law. Over the past months the White House has used discretion in enforcing immigration policy. In response, Obama has delayed a planned review of deportation policy until the end of the summer – a move that has drawn criticism from supporters and opponents.
Reform supporters are pushing for consideration of House Resolution 15, a bill similar to the bipartisan reform legislation that passed the Senate in 2013. That measure offers illegal immigrants who have resided in the U.S. since Dec. 13, 2011, an opportunity to seek provisional legal status that allows them to work but renders them ineligible for federal benefits. They must pay a penalty, taxes and a processing fee and can only apply for permanent status after 10 years. A new visa program for low-skilled workers would also be developed.
It also hikes border patrol ranks by 20,000 – almost doubling the contingent at a cost of $30 billion — and adds 350 miles of border fencing. It spends $4.5 billion on technical innovations intended to provide security personnel with full situational awareness along the southern border. And it implements an entry-exit visa program to keep tabs on visitors who overextend their stay as well as the so-called e-verify program to make employers aware of a potential worker’s immigration status.
But Boehner and other Republicans who have expressed a willingness to consider the issue are more apt to reject a huge measure like HR 15 in favor of a series of individual bills that address different aspects of the immigration debate. That likely would slow the process further and make it an unlikely topic for the 113th Congress since the bills would have to be introduced, marked up and passed and then sent to the Senate where they are likely to end up in conference.
Obama has indicated he may take executive action if Congress fails to act. The president could move to restrict deportations, expand work permit opportunities and even reduce the prosecutions of those arrested for illegal entry.
Gutierrez asserted that Latino voters are “repelled” by GOP inaction, maintaining that a “loud but small contingent of immigration opponents have backed the Republican Party into a corner they do not have the courage to break out of.”
“Even with a majority of Republican voters supporting immigration reform and a majority of Tea Party voters in support, the positions Republican candidates feel they must take in order to win over their base make them unelectable when they face the American people in the general election,” he said.
Latino voters will view 2014 as “the year it all slipped away,” Gutierrez said, unless the House acts soon.
“With or without immigration reform, Latino voters are a force that is growing faster than Republicans can withstand — and are tilting more towards the Democrats with each day Republicans stand in the way of stopping deportations that are breaking up Latino families,” he said.