President Obama’s East Room pitch on Thursday to revitalize comprehensive immigration reform was met with a collective shrug, as was Speaker John Boehner’s comment the day before that “immigration reform is an important subject that needs to be addressed. And I'm hopeful.” The prevailing conventional wisdom is that the issue is defunct for now, lost in the welter of the Republican civil war. Plus, it’s more fun to talk about illicit Twitter accounts, concocted ad hominem blind quotes and, of course, Web site malfunctions.
But the natural optimist in me thinks that the odds for some sort of serious immigration reform happening in the months ahead are better than many realize. A few reasons why, in no particular order:
Boehner has space. To the extent that there was any logic to the Speaker’s letting the government shutdown and debt-ceiling brinkmanship drag out as long as he did, it was that he had strengthened his position with his caucus’s hard-right flank and thereby created some room to maneuver on other fronts. “Boehner’s hold is a little stronger than it was” a few months ago, his near-predecessor as speaker, the lobbyist supreme Bob Livingston, told me when I ran into him at a function Wednesday night.
Well, there is no better opportunity for Boehner to show that this is the case – to retroactively justify a gambit that cost the country billions of dollars – than to press forward with immigration reform. To do that will require more than just casual comments like the one he tossed off Wednesday – it will require making clear that the leadership is serious about this and setting aside time on the calendar for it.
But wouldn’t pushing the issue forward mean once again breaking the not-so-hallowed Hastert Rule, which requires leadership to bring up for a vote only measures supported a majority of the caucus? Well, yes and no. There is increasing talk of taking a piecemeal route in the House – with, among others, one Dream Act-style measure to legalize those who came into the country as minors, one to stiffen border enforcement, one to expand visas for skilled foreign workers, and, yes, one to provide some sort of eventual path to citizenship for illegal immigrants beyond the Dreamers. The latter would not get a majority of House GOP support, but perhaps if brought through in a stream of other measures would not set off the Hastert Rule alarms as loudly. There would remain the question of how to reconcile whatever passed with the comprehensive reform bill already passed by the Senate – House conservatives say they are wary of a conference committee. But the fact remains that there is a conceivable path forward – if Boehner wants to pursue it. “He’s in a much stronger place for himself job-security-wise all around,” says one House Democratic aide.
It’s in the Republicans’ interest. Why would the cautious, conflict-averse Boehner want to put himself through the hassle, even if he does have a path forward? Because, of course, he and so many other leaders of his party and the conservative movement – Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist – grasp that the party cannot continue be seen as obstructing immigration reform by the country’s growing legions of Hispanic and Asian-American voters. Yes, many of the same leaders were warning the hard-liners in the House and Senate off of the defund-Obamacare government-shutdown path to no avail, but those warnings were highly ambivalent, a matter of tactical disagreement after years in which the leaders had been banging the same anti-Obamacare drum. Whereas in this case the leaders are truly in favor of immigration reform, even if just for reasons of self-preservation.
It’s not Obamacare. This is the other reason why Boehner might be able to push forward on this front: as incendiary an issue as immigration reform has been for many Republican voters in recent years, it’s actually less threatening than the two-headed beast of Obamacare and government spending. For one thing, it predates Obama as an issue – it was fellow Republicans George W. Bush and John McCain who were most identified with the 2007 push. For another, some of the most ardent anti-Obamacare soldiers are in favor of immigration reform to varying degrees, from Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador to border congressmen like New Mexico's Steve Pearce to the evangelical groups that have come out for reform. “In the grand scheme of Republican issues, it just doesn’t match up to Obamacare – that’s health care and Obama. That’s partly because they haven’t yet made it about Obama,” said the House Democratic aide.
Follow the money. Put simply: the pro-reform side has lots of it, the opponents not so much. Again, this is a crucial contrast with the battles over Obamacare, where the Club for Growth, Koch Brothers and the like are spending heavily to thwart the reformers, even to the point of punishing Republican state legislators who dare to contemplate embracing federal funds for Medicaid expansion. In the immigration realm, the big bucks are coming from these guys.
The pro-reform side isn’t giving up. This is the element too often discounted in drawn-out legislative battles: the energy and resolve of the footsoldiers. And it has not abated as much on the pro-reform side as much as the pessimistic Beltway take on the issue would have one think. There are millions of people in this country with a huge stake in this fight, and plenty others who have taken up arms in their support, and not just in the usual places: I was amazed to see several dozen people agitating for reform at the annual Fancy Farm political picnic in far western Kentucky, in August. Advocates have gotten further than ever before – they’ve gotten a bipartisan vote in their favor in the Senate, and they’ve gotten key agreements between the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce and growers and farmworkers in California, among others. They’re not about to give up now. “This is the absolute best opportunity we have to pass reform,” says Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “If we were going to leave it to the national pundits, this issue would have died a long time ago, but the reality is that it’s in the hands of the immigration rights movement and people are not going to end the fight until there’s a fix to this cruel situation that we’re living in.”
Obama wants to make it happen. One might think this would be the biggest obstacle for reform, in that Republicans would be unwilling to grant the president a legislative triumph. In fact, Democrats are having to contend with the reverse, a suspicion among many House Republicans that Obama and the Democrats secretly want reform to fail, so that they can keep bludgeoning Republicans with the issue among Hispanic voters. This is hogwash, as far as Obama is concerned: he desperately wants a major achievement in his second term, not least given the troubles that have arisen in implementing his main first-term one. As for the Republicans’ suspicion, there’s an easy way to keep Democrats from using immigration as a wedge issue: voting for a reform package. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says the Democratic House aide.
Redemption. This one applies to both sides of the aisle. This may be overly naïve, but I suspect there are members of both parties who are genuinely abashed by how badly Congress has come across in recent weeks, not to mention recent years, and would like to be able to show that they can come to Washington and address a major national problem. For the reasons listed above, this could offer just the ticket. And it sure beats spending the next year talking about chained CPI.