An Illegal Immigrant’s Guide to the U.S. Congress
Policy + Politics

An Illegal Immigrant’s Guide to the U.S. Congress

REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

On Monday, immigration reform advocate Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) ventured deep into GOP territory … with a mission that bordered on the impossible.

The Democrat hopes to rally support for the same kind of comprehensive immigration reform that cleared the Senate in July, a measure that instantly stalled in the Republican House. Gutierrez urged the voters who turned out Monday at a restaurant in Chantilly, VA to be relentless.

“No one has the right to be tired. No one has the right to be disillusioned. No one has the right to give up on this fight. Because today 1,200 people will be deported,” Gutierrez said. “The fear that permeates our community and the underclass that is exploited every day has to come to an end.”


During the August congressional recess, immigration activists have stayed busy. The group United We Dream stopped a deportation bus in Phoenix. More than a thousand activists protested outside the offices of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).


But little has changed to break the immigration deadlock since Congress departed for home. Here are the hurdles confronting reformers:
The Citizenship Problem – The Senate bill lays out a path to grant citizenship to as many as 11 million illegal immigrants, a huge non-starter with many conservative Republicans.

House Republicans have endorsed a piecemeal approach that heavily emphasizes protecting the border, instead of integrating undocumented workers and their children into the country as citizens.

Gutierrez’s second stop on Monday was in the congressional district of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA)—the architect of the GOP’s step-by-step philosophy.

In a radio interview last week with Hugh Hewitt, Goodlatte said any bill would consist of “legal status” for undocumented workers but not citizenship. Goodlatte said that even the children of illegal immigrants—known politically as “dreamers”—would not be entitled to citizenship under any reform.

“Even for them, I would say that they get a legal status in the United States and not a pathway to citizenship that is created especially for them,” Goodlatte said. “They get that legal status if they have an employer who says I’ve got a job which I can’t find a U.S. citizen and I want to petition for them … but I wouldn’t give them the pathway to a green card and ultimately citizenship based simply on their entering the country illegally.”


Internal GOP Pressures – House Republicans have struggled to pass spending bills, emergency storm relief, and even slight tweaks to Obamacare. The caucus faces the same pressure on immigration, particularly since many Republicans acknowledge the need to court Hispanics to win national elections

The House Judiciary Committee passed the “Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act” to permit state and local agencies to enforce federal immigration laws, expand Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and enhance the visa security program.

But the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), told the Spartanburg Herald Journal that his bill is unlikely to clear a House vote. Immigration reform champions such as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) have noted the economic benefits of expanding the U.S. workforce through immigration reform.

However, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) launched this month a $200,000 ad campaign attacking Ryan for currying to business interests that favor better access to foreign-born workers.

“What happens in the fall is going to be related to what the lawmakers hear and feel from the town halls back in their district,” said FAIR spokesman Bob Dane. “You’ve got a large number of House members who have never dealt substantively with the immigration issue. Our job—when they return—will be to continue to educate them.”

Little Congressional Fallout – The ultimate wakeup call for lawmakers is losing reelection. Both Goodlatte and Gowdy appear to be safe bets in the 2014 race, a pattern that repeats itself among with most GOP congressmen.

The Virginia Republican represents a district where less than 4 percent of the population is Hispanic. He won an eleventh term last year with 66 percent of the vote. Gowdy in South Carolina was re-elected with 65 percent in a district where just seven of every hundred residents are Hispanic.

Census Bureau estimates show that just five Republican congressional districts contain a Hispanic majority. Without a large enough constituency to appease, individual congressmen have little incentive to push for a broader overhaul.

Crowded Autumn Calendar – After Congress returns on September 9, it must agree to some kind of deal on the fiscal 2014 budget and the debt ceiling. The Obamacare health insurance exchanges—that Republicans such as Texas Sen. Tex Cruz plan to defund—launch on Oct. 1.


These issues will likely take precedence over immigration, judging by how Congress confronted the debt ceiling in 2011 and the fiscal cliff in 2012. At the same time, President Obama must weigh the extent of U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war and Egyptian politics.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) helped craft the Senate immigration bill, but he cares much more about Obamacare this fall. 

“Look, [immigration reform is] not the most important issue facing America — Obamacare is more important, for example,” he told Fox News this month.

Ho-Hum Voter Interest – Immigration reform never fully captured the public’s attention, at least not as much as political leaders hoped it would. An underwhelming 50 percent of Americans considered it a “top/high priority,” according to a May survey by the Gallup Organization. Eleven other issues—including gun violence—sparked greater interest.

Not surprisingly, most Americans want lawmakers to focus on policies that are specifically geared toward economic growth. When the Pew Research Center asked Americans whether Congress would pass immigration reform, just 14 percent said it was “very likely.”

The polls in the weeks that follow will reveal just how effective the August push has been. Immigration reform activist Stan Maclin of Virginia Organizing—who is based in Goodlatte’s district—plans to continue twisting congressional arms.

“We do have a tough sell,” Maclin said. “But the cookie jar can be cracked.”