A GOP Congress Will Face 12 Million Pleas for Immigration Reform
Policy + Politics

A GOP Congress Will Face 12 Million Pleas for Immigration Reform

For the briefest of moments not long ago, it looked as if comprehensive immigration reform might be within the grasp of the 113th Congress. 

Led by the bipartisan “Gang of 8,” the Senate passed a comprehensive set of immigration reforms in 2013, and in April 2104, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told a group of donors he was “hell bent” on getting a deal done. He even mocked his fellow Republicans who said it would be too difficult. 

Part 1: Overview
Part 2: Jobs
Part 3: Health Care
Part 4: Immigration

Then, like virtually every other legislative effort undertaken by the 113th Congress, immigration reform crashed and burned. It was brought down by strife within the House GOP, which, despite Boehner’s promise, never brought a serious immigration reform bill to a vote. 

Related: GOP Wants to Control Congress. It Hasn’t Made Its Case 

The question now is what, if anything, will happen in the 114th Congress. 

The prospect of a GOP takeover of the Senate in next week’s midterms has a number of Republicans promising that with their party in charge, Congress will be able to craft an immigration reform bill that President Obama will have no choice but to sign. 

“There would certainly be greater trust between the House and Senate in agreeing on something,” Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) told The Hill newspaper. “This is an American issue. I expect this party to come together on it.”   

Among those who follow the issue closely, though, the path through a Republican Congress is less than clear. While there is plenty of support for immigration reform in the GOP, the term “immigration reform” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. 

Related: Three Reasons Why a GOP ‘Wave’ Is Still Possible 

The most vocal wing of the party, personified by Rep. Steve King of Iowa, views immigration reform as closing down the borders to all illegal immigrants through a much stricter enforcement of current laws before allowing current undocumented workers to apply for legal residency. 

Others, like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, support reform that will help improve the GOP’s image with minority voters, a group whose support is increasingly necessary.   

Still others are interested in the kind of immigration reform important to the business community, which targets both agricultural laborers and immigrants with in-demand high-tech skills. In Congress, though, these constituencies don’t always overlap. 

“The big question is really whether the Republican national party leadership can get some control over a very diverse caucus,” said Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). “The challenge the leadership faces is getting enough broad-based buy-in.” 

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Chen, for one, isn’t confident Republican leaders will be able to manage it. “There is very little evidence the election is going to change anything to enable the Republicans to do this,” he said. “If anything, if the Republicans take the Senate, it’s going to embolden the element of the party that’s more restrictionist in its approach.” 

People in favor of more stringent immigration rules are no more confident that GOP control of both houses of Congress would allow progress on immigration reform. 

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a D.C. think tank that supports tighter immigration controls, is one of them. He said he’s hearing Republicans who supported the Gang of 8 bill – people he calls “pro-amnesty Republicans” since the bill supported a limited path to citizenship for some of the roughly 12 million illegal immigrants – claim that a modified version of that could make it through a GOP Congress. 

“They’re saying, ‘Let’s put together a bill we can say is a Republican bill and force Obama to sign it,’” he said. “They are mostly for the Gang of 8 with some tweaks.” 

Related: Could a Centrist GOP Break the Government Stalemate? 

The problem is that if Republicans control Congress next year, Congress is going to look a little different than it does now, he said. 

“I’m not sure it’s going to work – the idea of essentially passing the same bill but with different window dressing,” Krikorian said. “The new celebrity Republicans are going to be the Tom Cottons who aren’t going to go for that.” Cotton, an anti-immigration GOP lawmaker from Arkansas, is favored to win a Senate seat. 

Even some of the old guard will be hard-pressed to support immigration reform that goes beyond border restrictions, he said. “If [Kansas Senator] Pat Roberts survives, one reason will also be because he used the immigration issue.” 

Krikorian noted that many Republicans are concerned that if their party doesn’t take some action on immigration before 2016, the electorate will punish them in 2016. So some sort of “mini package” of reforms that gives something to everyone might pass, he said. The package might include mandatory employer background checks for those who favor stricter enforcement; automatic green cards for university graduates in science, math, and technology fields for the business lobby; and perhaps a formalization of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for liberals. 

Related: Lame Duck Congress Could Be One Ugly Fight After Another 

He’s still skeptical much of anything will happen. That’s because President Obama is expected to announce executive actions to reduce the number of immigrants who face deportation. 

“The problem is the president’s lawless amnesty decree next month,” said Krikorian, calling it “a nuclear weapon that blows up everything that could have happened in the 114th Congress. I think nothing is going to reach his desk precisely because of the executive action he is going to take. In the House and Senate, all the discussion is going to be, ‘How do we stop this?’” He added, “It poisons the well. It’s a dump truck full of poison in the well.” 

AILA’s Chen, though, says the “poison well” argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny “because it assumes the well was clean in the first place.” 

“There is, from my viewpoint, nothing the president can do to make the Republican Party more interested or desirous of advancing immigration reform,” Chen said. 

Related: Why Millennials – Shocker! – Now Prefer a GOP Congress 

He pointed out that last year, the president took executive action to prevent the deportation of relatives of members of the U.S. military. The provision affected a few thousand families but critics immediately called it “backdoor amnesty.” 

There’s not much incentive for the president to temper his actions after the election, Chen said. “If the president does something extremely small, say to help military families, he gets attacked severely by restrictionists,” said Chen. “So, he can do something extremely small or something extremely large – and the reaction is going to be the same.” 

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