How US immigration reform could still get past Republican opposition

It looks pretty bleak at the border.
It looks pretty bleak at the border.
Image: AP Photo/Gregory Bull
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Hopes of immigration reform in the United States have reached their nadir in the capital. After the Senate passed a bipartisan bill last month, it must now get through the House, where divided Republicans met today to scramble for a cohesive approach to the issue.

But there’s hope that a version of the bill—which would re-shape the US labor force by giving unauthorized immigrants a so-called “path to citizenship” and bringing in new guest workers, while also turning the US-Mexico border into a military panopticon—could become law.

If you want to kill something fairly popular in Washington, you don’t want to have your fingerprints on the corpse. And the bill is fairly popular. Conservatives in the House may not like the path-to-citizenship idea, but traditional Republican constituencies like businesses and evangelical Christians do, as well as Democrats. Many Republicans, including House speaker John Boehner, realize that after the Senate has passed a bipartisan bill—a rare occurrence in today’s Washington—the House needs to at least pass something, according to a Republican strategist working on immigration reform.

“The people that these guys are in touch with on a more regular basis, our donors, those guys want it to pass,”  he says. “People writing $30,000 checks are asking, when are we going to pass immigration reform?”

The problem is that what the House could pass with Republican majorities—measures to boost border security and give more visas to high-skilled immigrants and guest workers—won’t include the straightforward (though obstacle-laden) path to citizenship that the Senate proposed for the 11 million people without papers already in the US. Observers expect it will offer such people legal residency, either with a “trigger” that prevents citizenship until Congress or border states allow it, or no path to citizenship at all.

A House bill will then have to be resolved with the Senate version in a conference committee. And that’s where Republicans will find an opportunity to pin the failure on Democrats if they balk at such restrictions on citizenship.

“If it’s going to happen, there’s going to be a hard trigger in the bill, and the Senate is going to have to swallow something that they don’t really like,” the Republican strategist says. “Is the White House going to come out and say, there is a pathway, albeit bumpier than we have hoped, and say no at the witching hour because there was a quote-unquote trigger?”

Democrats say that removing the path to citizenship would be a deal-breaker. But they may agree to do it, if only to achieve reform that improves on the status quo before next year’s congressional elections make any further major legislation unlikely. By this thinking, the hard part was agreeing a path to legal residency; a path to citizenship could be layered on later.

The question, then, is whether Republicans are unified enough to spring this trap on the president and his party. Bohehner’s attempt to make a similar play during last year’s fiscal cliff negotiations failed when he couldn’t muster the necessary support.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, is holding back, in a signal to Republicans inclined to mistrust the administration that he’d rather have a legislative outcome than a political fight. Today his administration made the economic case for the bill, but he also mentioned plans to barnstorm the country in favor of immigration reform. Such a campaign would likely signal that hopes for reform are dead.

“The economic release today is softball. This is Obama saying we can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way: Republicans, choose your own adventure,” Sean West, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, says. “Republicans are not getting away from this without a bruising from the president. Do they care? The answer may be no and that’s why there is a 40% chance of failure.”