U.S.

Long elusive immigration reform faces narrow path forward in Congress

Deal breakers abound for legislation aimed at addressing status of 11 million undocumented immigrants

Rep. Luis Gutierrez said there is an urgent imperative to stop the deportations that have torn families apart, even if it means certain concessions.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — When the House Republican conference discussed and released a set of “standards” to govern possible legislation on immigration reform at their retreat last week, it was a welcome break in the clouds for the scores of immigration activists who have waited patiently for years for action on Capitol Hill.

The fact that Republican lawmakers in the House were willing to broach the politically explosive issue at all, after they refused to touch or even talk about the bipartisan comprehensive immigration-reform legislation that passed the Senate in June, was hailed as welcome news by many, including President Barack Obama. Whereas reform late last year was essentially considered dead, the latest move was seen as an early indicator that a shake-up of the existing immigration system may be taken up this year after all — advocates hope in the first six months of the year.

Still, any legislation that legalizes the status of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants and works to stem the tide of deportations by the Obama administration faces a treacherous and narrow path forward. On each side of the debate, there are political minefields.

House Republican leaders have indicated that they would spend the next few weeks taking the temperature of their caucus before potentially moving forward on a series of bills that deal individually with various aspects of the immigration issue. An all-encompassing bill, like the one passed in the Senate, is not on the table.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a proponent of immigration reform, said the biggest sticking point for the GOP caucus is suspicion that Obama’s White House and future administrations will not adhere to border-security and enforcement provisions — the starting point of Republican demands on immigration reform.  

“There’s a small group of people who don’t want to deal with the issue and reject the notion of dealing with the issue in any real substantial way. There’s a group who would like to deal with the issue but are concerned, frankly, with the politics,” Diaz-Balart said. “The majority view was that we should tackle it, but there is — and I don’t think this is a surprise — there’s a great distrust on behalf of the Republicans in the House toward this administration.”

He added that he believes “airtight” language on border enforcement could be crafted to allay those concerns.

Liberal groups fear the GOP’s preferred policies would bar immigrants from citizenship permanently.

“There will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws," the GOP document reads. “Rather, these persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S., but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits).”

Groups like the labor organization AFL-CIO immediately cried foul.

“Half-measures that would create a permanent class of noncitizens without access to green cards should be condemned, not applauded,” union president Richard Trumka said in a statement.

Different readings

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., another longtime advocate of immigration reform, said that the Republican position does not cross out the possibility of citizenship for undocumented immigrants and that policy specifics would have to be worked out in the coming weeks. It is likely that Republicans will insist that immigrants being granted legal status would have to get in the back of the citizenship line and wait their turn.

“There’s no permanent second-class citizenship, as I read it,” he said. “Nobody is saying we have given up on citizenship.”

Moreover, Gutierrez said there is an urgent imperative to stop the deportations that have torn families apart, even if it means certain concessions.

“I go out there and speak to the immigrants themselves, those that are under the threat of deportation today or the fear of being deported tomorrow, and they say, ‘Get me my papers, congressman. I don’t want to leave my wife as a widow. I don’t want to leave my children abandoned,’” he said. “People are going to have to leave the comfort of their caucuses and their parties and stand for the immigrant community.”

Then there are considerations of an election year. Many Republican lawmakers will be facing primary challenges in 2014, and some have advised that any action on immigration reform threatens to divide the party when they could be focusing on the foibles of “Obamacare” and a still anemic economy.

“A lot of the members are starting to realize that you cannot possibly put any immigration on the president’s desk that is good for this country and get the president to sign it,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, one of the loudest voices in the party urging against immigration reform, shortly after the State of the Union address. “So any debate we have in the House is only going to divide Republicans and unify Democrats.”

‘How much longer?’

Still, activists who have kept immigration reform alive said they are as hopeful as ever, despite all the false starts — from the failed effort in 2007 spearheaded by President George W. Bush to last year’s Senate bill, which was hailed as a watershed victory, only to languish.

Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, a Christian social-justice organization, is convinced that reform is inevitable.  

“Immigration reform is going to pass — there’s no doubt about that. We’re not going to deport 11 million people,” he said. “The question is, how much longer must we wait, and how much more suffering will be inflicted on so many more people?”

The next weeks and months will be filled with renewed activity, as a coalition of law-enforcement officials, the faith community and business and labor groups come together to get reform across the finish line, he said.

“Washington, D.C., is the most dysfunctional city in the country. We’re known for our political conflict. Immigration reform has the chance to really be an exception — an exception to our practices of political conflict,” he added. “We’ll fix our politics by fixing our broken immigration system.”

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