Is This the End of the Line for Immigration Reform?

Marco Rubio’s about-face sends a disappointing message to Latino voters. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Is renewed talk of immigration reform in Washington a new sign of life or its dying breath?

Since the government shutdown, the immigration issue has been resurrected. All eyes are on the House, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said immigration needs to be addressed. Meanwhile, President Obama has called on Congress to act, and activists around the country are ramping up their campaigns. The gears are slowly moving again.

But the question remains whether enough Republicans will back a reform bill and move the issue forward. Republicans need to make things right with Latino voters if they are to appeal beyond their base, but they could also make things worse if they pass a hardline border security bill without balancing it with a way to deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. While the party as a whole has a strong existential incentive to pass reform, individual lawmakers in gerrymandered districts face pressure from their supporters, not immigrants or their champions.  

We have been here before. After the 2012 general election, the Republican leadership decided to address its poor approval rating among Latinos and pass comprehensive immigration reform. But the ultra-conservative wing of the GOP pushed back so successfully it looked as if the reformers’ chance to pass a bill had come and gone.

In June, the Senate passed a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration bill. But Republican leaders in the House refused to put it to a vote because it doesn’t have the support of a majority of the GOP caucus. Instead, the House proceeded with a piecemeal approach and the House Judiciary Committee passed several bills, including a harsh border security bill that would turn the 11 million undocumented immigrants into felons. It is not the kind of punitive bill Republicans want to be associated with when they try to retake the White House in 2016.

Fast forward to this past weekend, when two new developments shook up the reform effort. In a surprising move, Senator Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who helped craft the comprehensive bill in the Senate, told Breitbart News the House should pursue the piecemeal approach and not go to conference with the Senate, effectively bringing to an end chances that the Senate bill will succeed. ABC News described Rubio’s move as a “flip-flop,” while MSNBC trumpeted, “Don’t pass my immigration bill!” Rubio’s move may be an adjustment to reality or a craven attempt to pander to the Tea Party. Either way, it’s a bad omen for reform.

Opponents of a comprehensive approach pointed to Rubio’s move as evidence that reform is on its last legs. “Even Senator Rubio is now backing away from his own bill,” said conservative Representative John Fleming, R-Louisiana.

Despite Rubio’s about-face, immigration advocates announced a significant step forward this weekend when Representative Jeff Denham, from a heavily Hispanic district in California, became the first Republican to back a comprehensive reform bill along with House Democrats. He was soon joined by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. Denham is optimistic more Republicans will join him. Unlike Rubio and the anti-reform camp, Denham supports going to conference with the Senate. Despite Denham’s move, however, even pro-reform Republicans say a comprehensive bill will never get a vote in the House.

As on many other controversial issues, the GOP is divided.  

“The mathematical reality,” said Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, who has been active in getting reform through the House, “is that whatever passes will need both Democratic and Republican votes.”

After a bipartisan House group working on a comprehensive bill dissolved last month, Diaz-Balart began working with a small group of lawmakers to craft legislation that would win enough votes on either side. It is expected to include border security measures and a way to deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants, but in a more palatable way for Republicans than the Senate plan’s path to citizenship.

“We have to deal with all of the different issues that are broken. We have to deal with them in separate bills. We’re probably going to have to do it in sequential order…so that people realize, ‘OK, this is what we’re doing,’ and then you can vote up or down on whatever part you want,” he said. “If we get those individual bills right, each one with different groups and different coalitions, then we may have a shot at doing this.”

One sticky issue to be resolved is whether the House will allow anything it passes to be merged with the Senate bill in conference. A fear among House Republicans is that anything they pass will go to conference with the Senate, resulting in a compromise bill that includes a path to citizenship that would then be passed with a majority of Democrats. Diaz-Balart doesn’t want to scare away Republican votes with talk of a conference, saying simply, “One step at a time.”

Despite the president’s calls for a bill this year, time constraints and political deterrents are likely to drag out the process for several months, even into the spring. The House has only a small number of days left in session this year, and Republicans don’t want to take a hard vote on immigration reform before Christmas, only to face backlash in their districts over the holiday break. Since many Republicans are worried about a Tea Party primary challenge in their home districts, winning over enough Republicans to get something through the House may take until the spring, when the primary season is over.