WASHINGTON – House Republicans have proved unable to coalesce behind leadership plans for wide-ranging immigration reform, dimming prospects for getting legislation dealing with the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants passed this year.
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), who has played a central role in the ongoing immigration debate, said reports that GOP lawmakers were lining up behind principles staked out by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are “just not true.” Instead, there exists “overwhelming support for the idea of doing nothing this year.”
“I do think we need to address the issue, but I think when we take back the Senate in 2014 that one of the first things we should do next year after we do certain economic issues, I think we should address the immigration reform issue,” Labrador said.
Boehner appeared to substantially yield to the view of Labrador and others on Thursday, acknowledging to reporters that “it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation” in 2014 as long as Republican House members maintain doubts over whether President Obama “can be trusted to enforce our laws.”
The speaker said he “never underestimated the difficulty in moving forward this year” but hoped to do so because “it’s been kicked around forever and it needs to be dealt with.” But continued GOP suspicions over White House motivations have rendered drawing the necessary support fruitless.
By all but throwing in the towel this session, Boehner joins Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who said there exists an “irresolvable conflict” between the massive reform measure that passed the upper chamber last year and the path being blazed in the House.
“I don’t see how you get to an outcome this year with the two bodies in such a different place,” McConnell said.
Despite the obvious setback, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama remains “optimistic about the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in 2014.” The administration has detected “significant movement” within the House Republican leadership and believes the two sides can still work together to generate the necessary support.
“Nothing this important, nothing this comprehensive comes fast or easy in Washington,” Carney said. “This won’t be any different.”
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, said his party initially reacted positively to efforts by the House GOP leadership to develop a consensus on immigration but it is now “somewhat disappointed” at the decision to throw cold water on the initiative.
“This is a question of what is morally right to do,” Hoyer said. “To fix a broken system that is breaking apart families, undermining our economy and abandoning what so many say is the right thing to do. So with all due respect to this, frankly, trying to distract us on this trust issue, this is not a trust issue. This is an issue of law and the administration’s performance both on border security and on enforcing the law in this respect, a bad law, a law that ought to be changed, a law that’s causing families to be torn apart.”
Congress for years has debated, thus far without resolution, the best way to deal with the ongoing problem of illegal immigration. Last June, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed its first major piece of immigration legislation since 1986 in a 68-32 vote with 14 of 45 Republicans offering support. The 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.
House GOP leaders immediately dismissed the Senate package but vowed to offer alternatives that focused on border security while rejecting a path to citizenship. And instead of packaging the provisions together, House Republicans planned to change immigration law by voting on a series of bills. Leadership remains reluctant to package disparate immigration measures into one bill, a la Obamacare, which remains the focus of overwhelming GOP enmity. The chance of the chamber developing an omnibus measure is slight, with lawmakers instead preferring a piece-by-piece approach, breaking the initiative into several component parts, each to be voted on individually.
Late last month, during a Republican legislative retreat, Boehner and leadership issued what they described as “immigration reform principles,” which included keeping the borders secure, preventing employers from hiring undocumented workers, offering a temporary worker program, overhauling the visa system and providing DREAMERs – those born on foreign soil brought here as children by undocumented parents — with a roadmap to citizenship.
But Republican lawmakers were tepid about the entreaty, with some asserting the party would be better off postponing action until 2015 – after the November elections where the GOP stands a good chance of capturing a Senate majority.
Republican lawmakers also are leery about entrusting Obama with administering any new law that might result, citing what they view as the president’s propensity for undermining Congress by issuing executive orders.
The suspicions persist even though the Department of Homeland Security has deported almost 2 million people since Obama assumed office, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Action was taken against about 409,000 undocumented individuals in 2012 and 368,644 in 2013.
Derrick Morgan, vice president for domestic and economic policy at the Heritage Foundation, said “policymakers have no real reason to trust the president to uphold any new immigration laws.”
“President Obama’s administration has changed his signature health care law again and again,” Morgan said. “In the immigration area, the Department of Homeland Security announced it will not enforce our nation’s immigration law against so-called ‘dreamers’ by issuing a memorandum, after Congress has repeatedly refused to pass the DREAM Act. Our federal drug laws will also go unenforced by the president in states that legalize them under state law. Even now, the president has decided to use executive power to impose carbon dioxide limits even though Congress rejected that policy during the cap-and-trade debate.”
Labrador said by delaying consideration Obama “has a year to prove to us that he is willing to actually enforce the law.”
“Until we have that trust, it would be a mistake to move forward on immigration reform,” he said.
Delaying immigration reform until next year offers no assurance of action. In fact, it may complicate matters for Republicans, since consideration likely will come at the onset of the GOP presidential campaign. Greg Sargent, writing for the Washington Post, said that could pull the Republican field to the right – “leaving the eventual nominee saddled with extreme party rhetoric and positions on the issue, further alienating Latinos in the general election — exactly as happened in 2012.”
“Consider the role of Ted Cruz, who is expected to run for president,” Sargent wrote. “He’s already attacking the new GOP immigration principles as ‘amnesty.’ If Republicans try to pass reform in 2015, he’ll have an opening to demagogue the heck out of the issue to appeal to a chunk of right wing GOP primary voters. He’ll do all he can to turn the GOP primary process into an anti-amnesty sludge-fest.”
But Cruz insists he wants to postpone debate for other reasons – although those reasons are also political.
“Amnesty is wrong in any circumstances and if we are going to fix our broken immigration system — and we should — it makes much more sense to do so next year, so that we are negotiating a responsible solution with a Republican Senate majority rather than with (Sen.) Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.),” Cruz said. “Anyone pushing an amnesty bill right now should go ahead and put a ‘Harry Reid for Majority Leader’ bumper sticker on their car, because that will be the likely effect if Republicans refuse to listen to the American people and foolishly change the subject from Obamacare to amnesty.”