The New Year Brings New Hope Immigration Will Finally Be Fixed

All eyes are on Boehner: Will his bipartisan budget victory embolden him to defy opponents of immigration reform? Jason Reed/Reuters

Will 2014 be the year for immigration reform?

Reform activists began 2013 full of hope that Republicans and Democrats would come together to pass legislation after years of failed attempts. But when the Senate passed a bipartisan, comprehensive reform bill in June, House Republicans rejected it outright. In the end, 2013 was the year comprehensive immigration reform died.

But it wasn’t a year for giving up. On the last day the Republican-controlled House of Representatives was in session before the holiday recess, immigration activists gathered on the fourth floor of the Cannon House office building to announce their movement isn’t going away. The press conference was followed by sit-ins in the offices of more than 100 anti-reform lawmakers.

Their message: If Congress doesn’t change the immigration laws, they will change Congress.

“We’re going to make sure this Congress pays the price for what they’re doing,” said Tefere Gebre, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. “For every deportation, I’m going to walk a precinct. For every deportation, we are going to register thousands of people. For every deportation, we are going to convert a green card-holder into a citizen.”

“I just want people to understand, we are not going anywhere,” he said.

It was a fitting end to a year filled with activism, from large-scale rallies in Washington to a 22-day hunger strike on the National Mall. As the year drew to a close, activists promised they would not back down. The prospects for reform are at their highest point in months.

In 2014, pro-reform lawmakers in Washington are expected to kick into high gear as they try to get a version of immigration through the House in the spring. Despite the disappointment of 2013, there are reasons for activists to be optimistic as House Republicans show signs of warming to immigration reform next year.

In December, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, hired Rebecca Tallent, a former chief of staff to Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, who was deeply involved in the failed 2006-07 attempt to pass reform. Tallent’s return to Capitol Hill was widely interpreted as a sign the speaker is serious about moving forward on the issue.

It may be more than a hunch. “The Speaker remains hopeful that we can enact step-by-step, common-sense immigration reforms — the kind of reforms the American people understand and support,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steele said. “Becky Tallent, a well-known expert in this field of public policy, is a great addition to our team and that effort.”

After the speaker, the most important person to watch is Representative Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, head of the House Judiciary Committee, and charged with drafting immigration legislation. Though he spent 2013 shooting down the idea of the House passing a single major piece of reform legislation as the Senate did, he recently renewed his pledge to pass a series of smaller immigration bills in 2014.

Calling the issue a “top priority” for the coming year, Goodlatte promised that his approach would go beyond Republican hobbyhorses like border security to a possible deal over legal status for the 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States.

Goodlatte’s committee passed four immigration bills in 2013 that are all awaiting a vote by the full House. There’s one on high-skilled workers, a guest-worker program for agriculture workers -- mandating that employers use E-Verify -- and a far-reaching border-security bill that gives power to local and state officials to make and enforce immigration laws.

The committee is planning at least three more bills next year, according to National Journal, that may include a bill to tackle the legal status question. It’s a perilous issue for Republicans, with the more conservative members of the party dismissing any form of legal status change as  “amnesty.”

While advocates had at first hoped that efforts for a comprehensive bill underway this year would make more progress, they are open to Goodlatte’s piecemeal approach so long as each of the major components of a comprehensive solution gets its chance in a bill. This piecemeal process also appeals to Republicans who, by bringing the bills to a vote one at a time, can allow conservative Republicans to vote pick and choose between which elements of reform they are prepared to back.

Democrats and pro-reform advocates believe they have leverage when it comes to the issue of legal status, which could include a path to citizenship, because Republicans will likely need Democratic votes to pass such a contentious measure. There are serious political implications if Republicans block reform -- the Latino vote will continue to unite to defeat the GOP in national elections -- but they will have to fly in the face of harsh criticism from the conservative GOP base if they intend to pass multiple bills.

The legislative push is not likely to be made in early spring. In January and February, skittish Republicans might decide against a straight up-and-down vote on the issue lest they attract an anti-reform primary challenger. That pressure will subside sometime in March, after the primary filing deadline in most races will have passed.

On the other hand, if the reform effort runs too late and starts to seep into the summer, the politics of the 2014 midterm elections will start in earnest, causing lawmakers to spend less time on Capitol Hill and more time campaigning, and efforts at reform will slow to a halt.

Getting a reform package through Goodlatte’s committee is one thing; getting it a vote on the House floor quite another, as Boehner has been unwilling so far to break the “Hastert Rule” that prevents votes on bills that do not have the support of a majority of the Republican caucus.

The question of what happens to legislation that does pass the House is also a can of worms. Boehner has thus far ruled out reconciling House legislation with the Senate’s comprehensive bill. If he sticks to his word, the Republican leadership could spend months wrangling legislation through the House, only to see Senate Democrats give them a taste of their own medicine and turn it down flat.  

Perhaps the best sign that immigration reform may come to fruition in the coming year is the bipartisan passage of the federal budget this month. If Boehner was prepared to buck the powerful Tea Party groups and the most conservative members of his caucus to pass a budget deal, perhaps he has the stomach to do it again to pass immigration changes.

“We just saw a budget deal that made progress that brought people together from both sides from very different perspectives,” Representative Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, a Boehner ally in the House, said recently. “I suspect that can be done on immigration as well.”

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