Immigration Reform: Signs Point to “Yes” in 2014

Predicting what may happen in the House of Representatives is often thought of as a sort of political calculus, albeit one with 435 variables, with each member adding yet another layer of uncertainty and complexity. The permutations would seem almost limitless. In practice, there’s still a high degree of uncertainty, but the range of possible outcomes is limited by the realities of political power, and its concentration in the hands of a few key players, like House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

In the six-plus months that have elapsed since the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill, back in June 2013, all eyes have been on John Boehner, watching for signals that he might finally allow his chamber to vote on some version of immigration reform, comprehensive or piecemeal. Despite occasional glimmers of hope, the year ended as many predicted: with the Speaker deferring to the hardliners in his party, putting off immigration reform to some unspecified future time.

Recent signs point to a shift in Speaker Boehner’s posture on immigration reform, as many political observers have noted. [See, e.g., Boehner Is Said to Back Change on Immigration, by Michael D. Shear and Ashley Parker, New York Times, 01.Jan.2014.] Two developments strongly suggest that Speaker Boehner will not be sitting on his hands during this year’s immigration debate, and may even – dare we say it? – lean in. According to the Times, when Mr. Boehner lashed out at Tea Party conservatives last December – out of sheer exasperation with what he took to be knee-jerk opposition to the budget deal – he showed growing impatience with their strident obstructionism, and a new willingness to confront this small but influential wing of his party.

The other signal of the Speaker’s intent to take up immigration reform this year, according to the Times: Mr. Boehner’s recent hiring of Rebecca Tallent, “a longtime immigration adviser to Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has long backed broad immigration changes.” Indeed, as we noted in December, this is a bellwether development: in Ms. Tallent’s most recent position, at the Bipartisan Policy Center, she directed a study that reflects a broadening consensus that America will reap substantial economic benefits from the passage of comprehensive immigration reform. [See Bipartisan Policy Center: Immigration Reform Would Grow Economy, MurthyBlog, 30.Dec.2013.]

That said, passage of immigration reform is far from inevitable. Getting Mr. Boehner on board, as he now appears to be, is a necessary precondition to moving forward with immigration reform, but it’s not sufficient to reach the final destination. Although the Speaker has pledged to split immigration reform into smaller chunks, the entire enterprise still could founder on the single most contentious issue: how to handle the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.

Even assuming that several House immigration bills eventually gain passage, the last hurdle may prove to be the most difficult: creating a single piece of compromise legislation in a House-Senate conference committee. The Senate’s Democratic majority will almost certainly insist on a path to citizenship for the undocumented, just as surely as the far right wing of Mr. Boehner’s caucus will oppose it – but none of that can happen until the House gets back down to business. In the meantime, there are hopeful signs that the immigration debate could finally take a more constructive turn after months of inaction – and that alone is something to celebrate.

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