Immigration reform faces same-old hurdles

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, July 9, 2013


The chances of immigration reform clearing the House have worsened.  The recent Supreme Court decision in favor of same sex marriage and the concessions made by immigration reform advocates in the Senate have not been sufficient to increase the odds of it passing in the House. Voting in favor of a legislation that would immediately grant documents to more than 10 million illegal immigrants and that would establish a long path to citizenship for most of them is a bitter pill to swallow for many conservative Republicans.


The immigration reform bill that cleared the Senate resulted from a compromise between moderate Republicans and Democrats. Democrats agreed not to push the issue of same-sex spouses’ eligibility for family reunification visas. The recent Supreme Court ruling that stroke down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has made liberal democrats more optimistic about the prospects of future Supreme Court rulings that would end all type of federal discrimination against same-sex couples. Since the number of states legalizing same-sex marriage is likely to increase, liberal democrats were willing to acquiesce to excluding same-sex marriage provisions from immigration reform. After all, if same-sex marriage continues to make progress at the state level, eventually immigration laws will also catch up.  Liberal democrats are willing not to put the immigration reform under attack from Republicans if they expect that the Supreme Court will eventually rule that the federal government cannot discriminate against same-sex couples.


Moderates in the Senate also made concessions to Republican conservatives in the House. Provisions were included in the bill to increase support for the bill among the heavily conservative Republican leadership in the House.  Funds will be allocated for strengthened border security and more funds will be provided for the construction of the controversial wall that already covers significant segments of the U.S.-Mexican border. However, an amendment that provided a path to legalization without citizenship was defeated in the Senate.  Several Republicans in the House of Representatives have stated that they will not vote for a bill that establishes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.


After clearing the Senate, the bill is now in the House of Representatives. Though many observers discarded warnings by Republican leaders that the bill sent by the Senate was “dead on arrival”, it now seems that Republican opposition to immigration reform will be more difficult to overcome than what moderate Republican and Democratic senators anticipated two month ago.  Several Republican leaders are trying to break the Senate bill into several different bills to vote on them independently.  Thus, they would vote in favor of a bill to increase border security and fund the construction of the border wall but vote against the bill that grants undocumented workers a path to citizenship.   Senate democrats have already announced that they will not compromise any further.  Thus, if the House does choose to break the comprehensive bill into different bills, there will be no immigration reform this year.


Initially, President Obama wanted Congress to send him a bill before the summer recess.  With less than four weeks to go before Congress goes on vacation on August 5th, hopes to see immigration reform become a law in the near future have vanished.  The House leadership has warned that there is no chance of the house voting in favor of a bill if the Senate is unwilling to compromise on further revisions.  


Anticipating that immigration reform might not materialize, President Obama has stayed away from pushing for it in recent weeks.  Obama’s track record of dealing with Republicans in the House offers no room for optimism.  The President has failed to engage Republicans into compromising on bills that are important for the White House.  There is no indication that this time around things will be different.  President Obama will certainly blame Republicans for not moving forward on immigration reform, but immigration reform advocates will complain that despite their willingness to compromise on issues that are dear to them (including the length of time undocumented immigrants will have to wait to apply for citizenship—fourteen years in the bill that cleared the Senate), the White House was unable to extract any concessions from Republicans.


President Obama continues to struggle with his approval.  In June, his disapproval averaged 47% while his approval was also at 47%.  A president who is unable to draw strong support from the American public has little bargaining power with an opposition-controlled Congress.  Because Obama is already on his second term, and the rumors about who will run to succeed him in 2016 are gaining political momentum, it is unlikely that Obama can expect higher approval in the near future or that his bargaining power increases in the months ahead. 


Many Americans agree that their immigration system is broken, but there is far less agreement as to what needs to be done to fix it.  Thus, without a driving force behind immigration reform, it is likely that the bill that cleared the Senate will stall in the House of Representatives and that immigration reform will not see the light before the end of the year.