Immigration reform still incredibly unlikely to happen this year

The House is not about to suddenly become functional and pro-reform

By Alex Pareene

Published October 24, 2013 7:31PM (EDT)

  (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

President Barack Obama today asked Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Specifically, he asked the House to pass it, because the Senate already did. He insisted that everyone, basically, agrees that reform is a Good Idea, and that Americans would like to see Congress accomplish some stuff instead of just having constant apocalyptic tantrums. Even John Boehner, speaker of the House and ostensible leader of the Republicans, agrees, according to Obama.

Now the -- (applause) -- we've got the time to do it. Republicans in the House, including the speaker, have said we should act, so let's not wait. It doesn't get easier to just put it off, let's do it now. Let's not delay. Let's get this done. And let's do it in a bipartisan fashion.

Yes, well, if it were that easy, it would be done already. The speaker has said we should act, sure, along with other Republicans in the House, but most Republicans in the House have differing definitions of "acting." Many are opposed to any bill granting "illegals" an opportunity to earn citizenship, many are opposed to doing anything the president wants, some support immigration reform but are scared of being attacked or primaried by conservative activists for voting for a Democrat-supported proposal, and a disturbingly large number of them simply don't think the House should be doing anything besides constantly voting against Obamacare forever.

President Obama has every reason to bring up immigration reform all the time. It's true that he sincerely wants the Senate bill to pass, because he believes it would help millions of people. It's necessary to point this out because it is commonly accepted on the right that Obama wants reform to fail so that he can use it as a cudgel against Republicans. That isn't actually true, but it is true that as long as Republicans keep failing on this issue Democrats will point that fact out to people. It's also true that bringing up immigration now serves to distract from bad things that are going on -- the embarrassing failure of the health insurance exchange site, the still-crappy economy, etc. -- because while pundits and Republicans recognize it as an attempt to change the national subject, it still reliably leads to a lot of Sunday show talk and political columns (like this one!) about whether Congress can accomplish this thing.

So, spoiler alert, no, Congress can't accomplish this thing. Have you seen Congress? Congress can barely avoid self-inflicted economic catastrophe, which it finally rejected in favor of mere self-inflicted economic misery. It is bizarre to imagine that this House, which is full of people who believe that the lesson of the shutdown is that they need to shut the government down even more loudly next time, is now going to fall in line behind a major piece of legislation that Barack Obama wants to make part of his presidential legacy.

Obviously the House is not going to pass the Senate bill and no one thinks it will. The pro-reform conservative plan is to try to get House conservatives to pass piecemeal reforms until -- surprise! -- they have passed what basically amounts to the same thing as the Senate bill without anyone having to say they voted for it. But House conservatives -- and, more important, the organizations and pundits that instruct and scare House conservatives -- are not dumb enough to be tricked into passing a bill giving millions of undocumented residents an opportunity to earn citizenship. They will make sure nothing they pass goes to conference committee, where they believe, probably with some justification, that Democrats and pro-reform Republicans will just turn whatever the House passes into the Senate bill.

What we'll probably get is nothing. The next most likely scenario is the House passing a couple of insane "border security" bills, involving spending billions of dollars on fences and walls and drones and private contractors and immigration enforcement agents, and then maybe attempting to pass something like this, from Darrell Issa:

Broadly, the legislation would grant temporary legal status to some immigrants in the U.S. illegally and allow six years for those who meet certain criteria to apply for a work or family visa without returning to their home countries. Those who could not find an existing channel to gain a visa within the six-year time frame -- or prove they would not be an economic burden on the U.S. - will have to return to their home countries.

Giving immigrants six years to win permanent resident status or citizenship under the current immigration system is basically a mass deportation program delayed for six years. And because conservatives constantly fear being betrayed by their leadership, even this might not pass. The most punitive and security-heavy "compromise" proposal in the world could still fail in the House, because conservatives simply don't believe that the president will enforce the law.

The Senate bill would possibly pass the House with Democratic votes, but John Boehner already explicitly promised not to let that happen. And it's very hard to imagine John Boehner specifically deciding to exacerbate a deep division in his caucus right before the budget fights are scheduled to happen (again). So that's probably it for anything important happening in 2013. Next year, maybe? It's possible, I guess, but I think the House of Representatives is more likely to initiate impeachment proceedings in 2014 than it is to pass comprehensive immigration reform including a path to citizenship.

But as long as they're talking about immigration, they're not talking about spending the next few months negotiating a deal to cut Social Security in exchange for also cutting the corporate tax rate, because of the deficit. So at least there's that!

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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