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Congress' Recess Is a Critical Time for Immigration Reform

Luis Guitierrez has all the makings of a primo pitchman for immigration reform. Few members of Congress have been hounding the party leadership to reform the system for as long as the Chicago representative of two decades. He has expert chops and, as a longtime fixture on Spanish-language news, is widely trusted by Latino voters for his line on the reform effort taking place in Congress.

Or, you could say, not taking place in Congress. The breakneck pace that reform enjoyed this spring was lost as soon as the bill entered the House, where its prospects are much grimmer than they were in the Senate. With Congress in recess, about the only thing reform advocates will affect between now and September is the volume at which members of Congress returning home hear their constituents clamor for the bill to pass. Which is why Gutierrez has been deployed for a nationwide whistlestop tour of pro-immigration rallies—where he gets rock star reception, writes Ed O’Keefe at the Washington Post, from adoring throngs.

Which is no small thing. This summer has already seen Senator Marco Rubio’s constituents muffle his once full-throated support for the Senate’s comprehensive reform bill (or some form of it). As Jon Cohn reported today, among Tea Partiers, a grassroots campaign is afoot to bully congresspeople into shutting down the government, unless they can defund Obamacare—which is amusing until you recall the debt ceiling standoff, or the fiscal cliff fiasco.

In that context, anything Guitierrez can do to juice the crowds greeting homebound lawmakers puts reform advocates in a better position when they return to Washington. But the position he and other immigration reform advocates find themselves in—hoping against hope that they can show Boehner the necessity of breaking the Hastert rule to pass immigration reform with Democratic support—is in small part a product of the way House Democrats handled immigration negotiations.

It is easy to overstate this. House talks on immigration, especially given the degree of extremism involved on the right, were always going to be mostly kabuki so long as things were running smoothly in the Senate—where everyone knew that the real Gang of Eight was writing the only bill that will receive a final up or down vote. And internal to the House, Democrats are not exactly negotiating from a position of power.

But if the only chance immigration reform has of passing the House is with a Democratic coalition anyway, that gives them more power than they, on an average day, enjoy. Or at least more reason to disengage from Republican interlocutors who are offering them nothing but junk. What House Democrats did, though, with their toehold on negotiating power, was accede behind closed doors to a string of fringy notions about immigration, such as the one that the Senate bill doesn’t go far enough to secure the border. At last report, inveterate Democratic lawmakers were seeking a way to include a proposal for more helicopters in their bill.

Guitierrez in particular spent a significant amount of time building a bridge to Rep. Raul Labrador, at least in the telling of those close to the Idaho congressman. Labrador is one of the few House Republicans who seemed genuinely desirous of immigration reform; but he also had always signalled his commitment to some of the loopier notions that have taken root with the far right of the party. It was no surprise, then, when Labrador was the first to drop out of the House’s bipartisan brainstorm. He and the other seven couldn’t work out a dispute about illegal immigrants receiving health care, a sideshow of conservative invention.

In short, House Republicans have used their negotiations with Democrats to pull the conversation rightward as they produce a piece of legislation that will be left mostly on the cutting room floor of the conference committee anyway—if things ever even get that far. They've signalled their ability to stomach certain untruths about immigration, so long as the House will have something to show for itself. While Guitierrez is rallying supporters in California, his Republican cohorts will be telling voters in their district that, yes, Democrats are offering them concessions on border security—but they’re going to see what else they can get.

Molly Redden is a New Republic staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.