Internal Political Struggles Holding Up Immigration Reform

Imagine a latter-day Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep twenty weeks ago or so, on June 27th, when the Senate passed its comprehensive immigration reform bill. Awakened today, having slept through the recent fiscal unpleasantness, he would be in his right mind to think that little had changed but the seasons. Then as now, the fate of CIR depends on the willingness of House Republicans to bring it to a vote.

What our hypothetical sleeper would have missed is the recent widening of a split in the House GOP, between mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party wing. This is especially evident in the context of the immigration debate. In recent months, many in the conservative establishment have warmed to the idea that immigration reform is necessary to their party’s political future. Why? Simple demographics: Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, and no political party with national aspirations can afford to alienate them. Many in the GOP establishment are concerned that their party has been overly identified with anti-immigrant legislation and even outright xenophobia. This segment of the party sees a twofold benefit to pushing for immigration reform: it would not only extend an olive branch to Latinos and other immigrant groups, it would respond to the needs of the business community, providing a modern immigration system for a modern economy.

A recent Wall Street Journal article described how GOP mandarins are pushing the House GOP to resolve the immigration reform debate once and for all:

“Some big-money Republican donors, frustrated by their party’s handling of the standoff over the debt ceiling and government shutdown, are stepping up their warnings to GOP leaders that they risk long-term damage to the party if they fail to pass immigration reform legislation. Some donors say they are withholding political contributions from members of Congress who don’t support action on immigration, and many are calling top House leaders.” [See Some GOP Donors Step Up Immigration Push, by Laura Meckler, Wall Street Journal, 23.Oct.2013.]

In late October, an ad hoc coalition of business lobbyists, law enforcement, and conservative evangelicals from around the country went to Capitol Hill in the hope of persuading House Republicans to put immigration reform on the legislative calendar:

“On Tuesday, the group of more than 600 leaders from roughly 40 states descended on the Capitol for meetings with nearly 150 Republican lawmakers. They are largely taking aim at House Republicans who think they could support a broad immigration overhaul, including some sort of legal status for the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. The leaders are urging the lawmakers to take a more proactive role in pushing immigration legislation to a House vote.” [See Business-Conservative Alliance Presses for Immigration Action, by Ashley Parker, New York Times, 29.Oct.2013.]

Meanwhile, on the other side of the party, Tea Party Republicans like Congressman Raul Labrador are stating categorically that immigration reform is simply not on the table this year. [See Unlike Shutdown, GOP Says Democrats Must Bend on Immigration, by Alan Gomez, USA Today, 17.Oct.2013.] Another bellwether: Senator Marco Rubio, a darling of the Tea Party movement who had been playing against type as an outspoken supporter of comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate, recently pulled back from this position, and now says he supports a piecemeal approach to immigration reform. [See, e.g. Rubio Retreats: Comprehensive Immigration Bill Wrong Way to Go, by Andrew Johnson, National Review Online.]

The question is whether the Tea Party will continue to set the agenda for the House GOP. Mounting frustration with the Tea Party may lead mainstream Republicans to move forward on immigration reform without them. The strong plurality of House GOP members who support some kind of legalization for the undocumented may soon emerge as the majority of the House majority – enough to overcome the Hastert Rule, which holds that the Speaker should only pass legislation when most of the majority party approves of it.

A case in point: Congressman Fred Upton (R-MI), a leading House Republican, recently predicted that at least half of his caucus would vote for immigration reform, noting that, “… it’s too important to have a partisan thrust here. I’d like to think we can find the center on this issue and move forward.” [See Upton: Half of GOP Caucus Backs Immigration Reform, The Hill, 03.Nov.2013.] Well said, and we hope others in the House will reach the same conclusion.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.