Another punishing fight in '15: Why a battle on immigration reform looms large

Looking at what's ahead in the coming year for immigration reform -- more of the same paralyzing nonsense

By Simon Maloy
Published January 2, 2015 11:59AM (EST)
Marsha Blackburn, Ted Cruz           (AP/Chris Usher/Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Marsha Blackburn, Ted Cruz (AP/Chris Usher/Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

It’s no small task to pick out the biggest failure from this most recent session of Congress. It felt as though you couldn’t go more than a few days without some legislative travesty or bungled negotiation or policy disaster. But when you step back and view the whole thing in its full, dysfunctional glory, one issue area stands out: immigration.

This was supposed to be the session in which immigration reform would finally – finally – get done. We’d been arguing over it since at least 2005, and Congress tried over and over to pass legislation only to see those bills expire before they could reach the president’s desk. Mitt Romney’s Latino-powered thumping in 2012 was, we thought, the wake-up call Republicans needed. For a time it was, but then the old habits crept back in.

And now that Obama’s taken unilateral executive action to curb deportations, all the anger and the dysfunction are going to carry over into 2015 and the new, Republican-dominated Congress. So what can we expect? Well, things don’t look great.

Remember the Cromnibus? Sure you do. It was passed, like, two weeks ago. The Cromnibus was so named because it combined an omnibus spending package with a short-term continuing resolution (CR) for the Department of Homeland Security – the agency that handles immigration issues – that will run out in February. That short-term CR was the carrot GOP leaders dangled in front of angry conservatives to ensure they had enough votes to keep the government from shutting down. Vote for funding now, they said, and we’ll have a fight over immigration funding in early 2015 when we have the numbers and control of both houses.

So, for the first couple of months of the year, there’s going to be a lot of chest-thumping and more overheated nonsense about Obama the emperor declaring amnesty by fiat. While that’s a certainty, what’s not known is what, if anything, the GOP can do about it. Cutting off appropriations to DHS won’t actually halt Obama’s proposed program, and politically it’s a boneheaded play to mess with national security funding.

Here’s how that argument goes:

GOP: End your program or DHS funding gets it!

OBAMA: Why are you withholding funds from the fight against terrorism?

GOP: …we’re, uh, we’re serious!

OBAMA: The Secret Service, they need this money.

GOP: Don’t think we won’t d—oh, all right fine.

Of course, the usual cast of Tea Party titans and immigration hardliners will push to cut off funding regardless of whether it will work and heedless of the politics, but if the same coalition of Democrats and non-suicidal Republicans that passed the Cromnibus can do it one more time for DHS funding, then we can move on to the legislative stage of the endless immigration reform fight.

Again, all of this has to be taken with a massive grain of salt given that Republican promises of action on immigration are frequently made and seldom acted upon, but the GOP is making noises that they will introduce new immigration legislation in the new Congress. Throughout 2013 and 2014, the GOP made the case that their problem with comprehensive immigration reform was the “comprehensive” part of it. They favor a piecemeal approach that starts with the one thing all Republicans can agree on, border security, and then tackles the thornier issues like work visas, permanent residency, and paths to citizenship. And, sure enough, the legislation they have planned is, according to Yahoo News, aimed at “strengthening the U.S.-Mexican border to discourage illegal immigration.”

The White House has signaled that they’re open to a piecemeal approach, but Democrats in general are very suspicious of this approach. To get a sense of why, let’s imagine another conversation:

GOP: Look, why don’t we just do immigration reform piece by piece?

DEMS: Okay, fine.

GOP: We passed border security!

DEMS: Neat. When do we do the rest of it?

GOP: Do the rest of what?

There are undoubtedly Republicans in Congress who very much want the reform process to move past the border security stage. They see the polls showing Americans want immigration reform to pass, and they know that Latino voters rallied behind Democrats and Obama after the president made his announcement on executive action. The fumbling and gross pandering to the conservative base over the last year badly compounded the party’s already numerous problems with Latinos, and with the 2016 election looming, there are Republicans who want to show that the party has something to offer besides fences and deportations.

The problem is the sizable contingent of the GOP that doesn’t give a damn about its long-term demographic health and will dig its heels in to halt any sort of “amnesty.” They scored huge victories over the summer with the primary defeat of Eric Cantor and their hijacking of the border crisis legislation, so they know they have clout to throw around and are capable of scaring their own caucus away from reform measures. Already their mere presence is clouding the way forward. “Senior House Republican aides said it was unclear what bills might move next year beyond border security,” Yahoo notes.

To get something passed, Republican leaders will have to craft legislation that doesn’t alienate too many conservatives, doesn’t alienate the Democrats who’d be needed to help pass it, and is acceptable overall to the president. That would be difficult enough even if the House leadership weren’t prone to constantly stepping on rakes.

So what can we expect on the immigration front in 2015? Much the same as what we got in 2014: lots of fighting, little actual progress, and still more fighting.

Simon Maloy

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