Immigration Reform: A Lot of Work for Nothing?
Policy + Politics

Immigration Reform: A Lot of Work for Nothing?

REUTERS/Jeff Topping

If all goes as planned, the Senate will pass long-awaited immigration reform legislation later today before lawmakers depart Washington (once again), this time to celebrate the July 4th holiday. With the fate of 11 million illegal immigrants hanging in the balance, the bipartisan measure aimed at bolstering border security and creating a lengthy path to citizenship is among the most consequential pieces of business in Congress this year.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for the House to green-light the bill.

With so many Republican and conservative forces arrayed against the measure in the House, the Senate’s final vote may well be a Pyrrhic victory –  one emblematic of the continued dysfunction and partisan gridlock of a Congress that can barely claim the approval of one in ten Americans.

The eight Democratic and Republican senators who drafted the legislation’s framework did contortions this week to placate critics and try to attract additional  GOP supporters to get the final vote in favor of the bill as close to 70 senators as possible. The biggest concession was to add $38 billion to the bill to beef up security along the U.S.-Mexican border, by doubling the number of Border Patrol agents, building 700 miles of fencing, and deploying unmanned drones for enhanced surveillance.

The record of the new Congress sworn in last January is dismal by almost any standard.  But the issues are familiar—Republicans want lower taxes and a smaller government; Democrats want higher taxes with few reductions in domestic programs.

For a second year in a row, Congress failed to agree on a new farm bill. House Republicans refuse to negotiate a compromise budget with the Senate for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, and instead the two chambers are moving ahead with fiscal 2014 spending bills for domestic programs and defense that are hundreds of billions of dollars apart.

The House, Senate and White House appear headed for another showdown this fall over the debt ceiling, with the threat of a government shutdown or default on U.S. borrowing. And there’s  no consensus on how to avert a second year of deep, automatic spending cuts under sequestration that are adversely affecting millions of Americans and many government programs. 

In addition, Congress is likely to recess tomorrow without coming up with a solution to prevent a doubling of the interest rate – from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent – on student loans that would soon affect 7 million college students.  The deadline for action is July 1.


Thomas Mann, a government scholar with the Brookings Institution who has written and spoken widely on congressional dysfunction, said today, “The only signs of life in this Congress have been the Senate’s work on immigration.”

“Clearly, little progress has been made on anything else,” Mann told The Fiscal Times. “And it’s putting in place a record for this Congress that is as abysmal as its predecessor.  . . . Congress has taken itself out of its historic role [as a premier policy maker] because of the asymmetric polarization that dominates our time.”

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) acknowledged early today that he and other members of the “Gang of Eight” can’t count on gaining 70 votes for the immigration reform bill,  but told MSNBC he was satisfied it would be a strong vote. “We wanted to get a significant number of Republicans to vote for the bill … And what does that mean? It means that when the bill goes to the House, there’s going to be pressure on them to do something. So we’re feeling pretty good about how we did,” he said.  

The Senate voted this afternoon, 68 to 32, as a prelude to the final vote. Fourteen Republicans voted with the Democrats to end the debate. But for now, there is little if any significant support among House Republican majority for a comprehensive immigration overhaul regardless of the Senate’s outcome.  “The House is not going to get logrolled by the Senate,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, said earlier this week.

Rather, the preference of the House GOP is for a piecemeal approach – beginning with tougher border measures and dragnet-like tactics to round up illegals already here.

This dynamic is reminiscent of the immigration reform debate of 2006. Back then, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, the House passed a bill that bolstered border security but without offering a route to a “green card” or citizenship – and both bills died.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) today reaffirmed his vow to keep major immigration reform legislation off the floor unless he’s convinced it would pass with a majority of Republicans voting. “I made it clear, I think we need a majority of both parties to support the passage of immigration reform,” Boehner told reporters today. “And to do that I’ve got to facilitate a process and discussion – a bipartisan discussion. And that’s what I’ve done literally since the day after the election.”

The speaker insisted that enhanced border security would take precedence over all other considerations in writing legislation. And he declined to say whether any House-passed bill would include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. “Me taking a position one way or another [on that issue] is just going to slow the process down and make it more difficult,” Boehner said. 

For now, the “Gang of Eight” plan is getting a cold reception among House Republicans.  Indeed, immigration reform is so far down the priority list of the House GOP that some are talking about postponing consideration of it until late this fall or early next year, when the 2014 congressional election campaign begins to heat up.

“I think this train is getting ready to slow down,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a key ally of Boehner’s, told The Washington Post.

For her part, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) offered lukewarm praise for the Senate immigration plan. “While it’s not everything I would have wanted in a bill, nonetheless it’s a compromise and one we can all support.”

She added, “It was a bill that had ‘poison pills’ in it – poison pills but not lethal. I would hope it would be given some respect in the [House] Republican caucus.”