Could Immigration Reform Save the GOP?

Could Immigration Reform Save the GOP?

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The Republican Party emerged from the partial government shutdown with record low approval ratings. Now, some analysts say the key to their survival could be their leadership on immigration reform. The strategy House Republicans decide to take on this issue could determine their viability in the next election. But while it’s unclear what their next move will be, news reports this week indicate they may be less at a standstill than we thought.

Signs already point to the GOP taking steps to move on immigration reform.

On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner left open the possibility of bringing up immigration reform for a vote on the House floor this year.

"I still think that immigration reform is an important subject that needs to be addressed and I am hopeful," Boehner told a reporter.

Some House Republicans are already hard at work on legislation that would address one of the biggest questions in immigration reform: how to fix the legal status of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.

The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post reported Tuesday that Republican Congressmember Mario Díaz-Balart (FL-25) is working with a group of lawmakers on a bill that would offer undocumented immigrants a way to “get right with the law.” Republican Darrell Issa (CA-49) is reportedly working separately on a measure that would offer temporary legal status to qualifying undocumented immigrants.

The news comes as the House GOP once again finds itself in the hot seat, with little to show in the way of action on immigration reform.

It’s a central question for a party that has come to be known increasingly as anti-immigrant and whose popularity, especially among Latino voters, has dropped dramatically.

A patchwork of state immigration laws

The experience of undocumented immigrants can vary widely depending on where they live. California, for example, recently passed more than a dozen laws including measures that allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, protect the rights of domestic workers, and limit law enforcement's ability to detain undocumented immigrants for deportation.

Reshma Shamasunder, director of the California Immigrant Policy Center, said the victories this year in California show the state’s “slow change in perception of immigrants” since the anti-immigrant sentiment in the mid-90s.

“You can’t have a longstanding population that is afraid to drive, unable to participate in the community and civic activities,” said Shamasunder.

Meanwhile, immigrants in states like Georgia that have followed the model of Arizona’s enforcement-oriented immigration law SB 1070 are facing a very different set of circumstances.

“Things do not look [good] in the South,” said Adrian Bernal, a journalist with Radio Información on 1310 AM in Atlanta.

Two years ago, Georgia passed a state immigration law, HB 87, that made it a crime to get a job with false documents, punishable with up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine; required businesses to check the immigration status of new hires; and required anyone receiving public benefits such as food stamps to provide a “secure and verifiable” ID document. A federal judge blocked two other provisions of the law — a requirement that law enforcement officers check the immigration status of people who can’t provide IDs, and punishments for anyone who harbors or transports anyone else illegally present in the country.

A last-minute addition to the law also created an Immigration Enforcement Review Board that is empowered to subpoena witnesses, documents and mete out punishment, said Bernal. The board is now considering bringing charges against DeKalb County for not enforcing HB 87.

“We have found ourselves with this board that many think is unconstitutional because only registered voters can complain to the commission,” said Bernal.

The 2012 election saw record turnouts from Latino, Asian and immigrant voters, many of whom cited immigration as a key concern.

“House Republicans’ views on immigration are untested, and many advocates for reform believe they are implacably hostile,” Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small-business owners in favor of immigration reform, wrote this week in a column for CNN. “But the truth is Republican opinion has been evolving since the 2012 election. More and more House Republicans, perhaps the majority, know that reform is overdue and that the GOP must be part of the solution -- to remain competitive with Latino voters and because it's the right thing to do.” 

The question now, she writes, is whether the GOP will be able to take ownership of immigration reform, to be seen as leaders on the issue and not be seen as merely followers of Obama.

It’s a thin line to walk. The morning after the partial government shutdown ended, Obama called on Congress to act on immigration reform. Republican lawmakers responded by accusing the president of playing partisan politics on a divisive issue to make the GOP look bad: If the party doesn’t act, they could be blamed for the failure of immigration reform. But if they act on reform, they could be seen as simply bowing to the president.

In the aftermath of the government shutdown, immigration reform may be a test case of where the Republican Party is headed.

They have until the end of next year, 2014, to come to a compromise (in conference committee) with the broad immigration overhaul passed in the Senate in June. Once the two chambers pass the final compromise bill, it will head to the president’s desk.

“It used to be that immigration reform was cyclical. Now, the cost of inaction is so high,” Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform advocacy organization in Washington, DC, told reporters on a national telebriefing this week organized by New America Media. “I personally think you’re going to see House Republicans introduce a bill this year.”

The piecemeal approach

House Republicans have said they will focus on separate piecemeal bills that address different aspects of immigration reform. The House’s Judiciary Committee has passed four bills that address E-Verify (the federal database to check the immigration status of potential employees), the SAFE Act (which gives local law enforcement unprecedented authorization to enforce immigration laws), high-skilled workers and agricultural workers. The House’s Homeland Security Committee also passed a bipartisan border bill.

Other bills currently being discussed include the KIDS Act (a GOP version of the DREAM Act) and a bill addressing low-skilled workers.

Meanwhile, House Democrats have introduced a compromise bill that mirrors much of the Senate omnibus bill, but which substitutes a House bipartisan border bill for the border enforcement addition passed in the Senate. But observers say that bill, which has the support of more than 180 Democrats, has little chance of moving through committee in a Republican-controlled House.

Three possible GOP plays

There are three possible plays for House Republicans to move the ball forward, according to Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy and advocacy at the Washington, DC-based think tank Center for American Progress.

First, House Republicans could hold a series of floor votes on the piecemeal bills that have made it through committee. If these bills pass in the House, they would move on to the conference committee, where lawmakers would have until the end of 2014 to work out a compromise between the Senate and House bills.

Second, Republicans could choose to do nothing. If Republican leaders calculate that there simply isn’t enough support among their party for immigration reform, they could decide not to bring up such a contentious issue, afraid that a no vote could make the GOP look bad. Currently, some 27 House Republicans have said they support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Third, Republicans could decide to bring to a vote a bill that includes a “poison pill,” something that is so toxic to the community that Democrats won’t vote for it. One example of this would be the SAFE Act, a bill that Kelley calls a “draconian” enforcement bill that “goes way too far.” This strategy would allow Republicans to say they had tried, and that it was Democrats who thwarted the chances of immigration reform.

Calls for a moratorium on deportations

If Congress doesn’t act on immigration reform, some immigrant rights advocates are calling for President Obama to halt deportations through executive action.

But there are political and legal concerns with such a move, notes Kelley.

If Congress passes immigration reform, it would be a permanent fix – unlike the temporary deferred action program announced by Obama. (The president is not able to grant green cards or a path to residency and citizenship, for example.)

Others have raised legal questions about the president’s authority to grant deferred action to too many people, saying it would be going too far and could be an abuse of discretion.

“The view from a political standpoint, is that that’s not smart because there is still time for the Republicans to act,” said Kelley. If the White House steps in, she said, “It takes Republicans off the hook.”

The question now is whether House Republicans will see it in their best interest to act on immigration reform – or if they think the best political move is not to move at all.

That’s a lot of political maneuvering on an issue that has real-life implications for millions of immigrants in this country who are living under threat of deportation, waiting years to reunite with family members as a result of visa backlogs, or simply afraid to call the police if they are victims of a crime.
 

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