Critical weeks for immigration reform

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 30, 2013


As Senators and Representatives have travelled to their home districts for the Memorial Day weeklong recess, speculations over the problems ahead for the immigration reform bill have increased. Though a watered-down reform will surely pass in the Senate, conservative Republicans in the House might kill any effort at overhauling the immigration system.   Both parties would benefit from the passage of a bipartisan reform, but several Republicans fear that Democrats will end up benefiting more in the long term. Resistance to change the party to make it more attractive to Latino and new immigrants might lead House Republicans to block the reform that is now making its way through the Senate.


On May 21, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the immigration reform by 13 to 5. The ten democrats in the committee and three republicans voted in favor.  The bill now moves to the floor of the Senate, where it faces two significant hurdles.  First, advocates of the reform must secure 60 votes to prevent a filibuster.  Even if the 55 Democratic senators are in favor, 5 Republicans must support allowing the reform to be discussed.  Two Republican senators have already expressed support for the reform—the third voted in favor of it to send it to the floor, not because he favors it.  However, there might be a few democratic defections—including some conservative democrats that oppose the pathway to citizenship included in the bill and a few liberals that want to pressure the Obama administration for provisions favoring same-sex couples. During the weekend, Democratic Senator from New Jersey, Bob Menendez, acknowledged that advocates of the reform don’t have yet the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster.


If the filibuster is avoided, the reform faces a second hurdle.  Senators can introduce their own amendments in the floor. Opponents of the reform are expected to introduce an amendment to change the pathway to citizenship to a pathway to legal residency, banning undocumented immigrants who benefit from the reform from being eligible to apply for citizenship later on.  Though such amendment was already introduced by Republican Senator Ted Cruz from Texas—and defeated in the Judiciary Committee—it is likely that it will be introduced again.  Liberal senators can introduce amendments to favor same-sex couples.   Since the Judiciary Committee bill reflects negotiations brokered by the so-called Gang of Eight—a group of 4 Republicans and 4 Democratic Senators—any amendment passed in the Senate floor can threaten the precarious equilibrium on which the bipartisan agreement stands.   


The strongest opposition to the reform will be in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.  Republicans and a handful of Democrats from conservative districts will attempt to water it down or block it altogether.  Many Republicans favor a reform that will make it easier for American businesses to hire well-qualified foreigners—including foreign students in high-tech and science who wish to stay in the U.S. after they complete their degrees. Fewer Republicans are in favor of establishing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers presently living in the U.S.  The opposition to granting amnesty and open a way for immigrants to get permanent residency and eventually citizenship results both from fear about the inclinations of Latinos to vote for Democrats and the fear of a backlash in their home districts from voters who adamantly oppose granting amnesty to immigrants who broke laws to enter the U.S. or stayed after their visas expired. Thus, even if the Republican leadership in the House acquiesces to the compromise brokered by Republican senators, Republican representatives might revolt and vote against the reform in fear that they will be punished in their district primaries in 2014 by conservative voters who are opposed to granting amnesty to illegal immigrants.


The fact that a majority of the 11 million undocumented immigrants who can potentially benefit from an immigration reform are Latinos also makes it more difficult for House Republicans to support it.  Latinos overwhelming vote for Democrats. Establishing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants means strengthening the future of the Democratic Party.   True, the Republican Party must redefine its strategy to attract Latinos and other minorities if it aspires to be a majority party. But for many conservative Republicans, the cost of reforming the party is far higher than the short term cost of opposing immigration reform.


Immigration reform must clear the Senate and get to the floor by early June. By the time Congress adjourns for the summer recess in early August, the reform must have passed a few of the sub-committees to have any chance of becoming law before the end of the year.  Though clearing the Senate will be a significant accomplishment, getting through the House will be far more difficult. Given the difficulties the reform has faced in the Senate, the House hurdles can very well end up too difficult to overcome for the first real bipartisan initiative to have made any significant progress under the Obama administration. Supporters of the reform are moderately optimistic, but there is a long way to go for the immigration reform bill to pass.