Congress And Immigration Reform: The Complete Guide To High Hopes, Certain Doom

In Washington, as April showers begin to give way to May glowers, your congresscritters are continuing their fervent attempts to prove that they are capable of actually doing their jobs -- passing something, anything, not related to the meals they consumed at their latest fundraising soiree.

Some good news on that front, I guess: over the past 24 hours, the House and Senate have put their noses to the grindstone and manifested a heroic effort to save very affluent Americans from the depredations of the sequestration that they all thought was a super-good idea, until they remembered that it actually affected someone other than the working- and middle-class Americans they have been assiduously ignoring for the past five years.

Thus spurred to action, both houses of Congress moved legislation to relieve people -- mostly themselves and their cronies -- from the rigors of sequestration-induced flight delays. There was much rejoicing. Maine Sen. and Olympic gold-medalist in the 100-meter freestyle hem-and-haw Susan Collins couldn't help but declaim that at last, she'd found a cause worthy of her political capital.

But now that the DCA-LGA shuttle has been rescued from certain mild inconvenience, the question remains: Will Congress be able to do anything that's actually significant? Well, the next big test is looming, in the form of comprehensive immigration reform. And at the moment, the prospects for passage of a reform bill are being blown aloft on a rainbow-colored cloud of optimism. Those who are pushing the hardest for reform believe that they can win 70 votes in the Senate.

Can it happen? We've danced this dance before, and very recently at that. Let's recall that in the last episode of "WTF: Senate?" the world's most deliberative body couldn't muster 60 votes for a watered-down, sliver-of-compromise on expanding background checks for gun sales, which had vast public support. So is it possible that a bill that is both more contentious and more sweeping has a shot? Let's break it down.

As with just about everything else Congress may or may not do for the foreseeable future, everything basically hinges on whether the GOP is going to lend support to immigration reform, or consign it to the bin of pointless obstruction. Usually, you bet on "obstruction," but in this case, the reform movement has a lot going for it, beginning with the historical desire among prominent members of the Republican establishment to see immigration reform through. These desires have fallen by the wayside in recent years -- the GOP's embrace of its nativist base to power 2010 midterm success all but pushed it off the table.

But the roots of reform remain. And this week, as the effort to burnish President George W. Bush's brand began in earnest, the immigration reform effort got a boost. At the dedication ceremony for Bush's presidential library, President Barack Obama reminded the assembled of the former president's passion for the issue, and urged everyone to extend to his predecessor a heaping helping of credit: "I am hopeful that this year ... that we bring it home. ... If we do that, it will be in large part thanks to all the hard work of President George W. Bush."

Of course, if the 2010 elections scotched the hopes of reformers, it was the 2012 elections that rekindled them. Having lost the lion's share of the Latino vote to Democrats, maxing out the effort to revitalize their appeal to that voting bloc became one of the load-bearing pillars of the party-wide rebranding effort. In the now-famous Republican National Committee "autopsy" report, the authors made the specific urging: The GOP "must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.”

So with the desires unearthed and incentives identified, what's the next step? Immigration reform needed a posse. Enter the Gang Of Eight, a bipartisan group of key senators, ready to hatch a plan and see it through. The Octogäng featured four senators from each party: Democrats Dick Durbin, Robert Menendez, Chuck Schumer, and Michael Bennet, joined with Republicans Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Jeff Flake, and Marco Rubio to assemble 16 arms to hug immigration reform nice and tight, and keep it warm and safe from opposition. The Octogäng was almost an ideal assemblage: two Hispanic members, two border-state senators, lots of veteran clout. But the most important member of the group has to be Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Rubio is for all intents and purposes, the face of comprehensive immigration reform. When someone's got to take the case to Rush Limbaugh, Rubio answers the call. Got to get the message out on the Sunday talk shows? Rubio wakes up and does his version of the Full Ginsburg.

There was a brief moment in the process when observers started to doubt Rubio's resolve. The day after other Octogängers made their way onto the Sunday shows to announce that an accord had been struck between the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, and stoke new optimism about how quickly everything else might come together, Rubio applied the brakes. As Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told CQ Roll Call, "We want public hearings, a committee markup and an amendment process on the floor. ... We need to get buy-in from [everyone.] We want people to understand what’s in the bill and what’s not in the bill.” Salon's Alex Pareene got suspicious, and not without reason:

This isn’t just Rubio making a big show out of calling for everyone to take a breather. This is a real call for lengthy delay. The audience for Roll Call isn’t normal humans like you and me, it’s other senators and people who actually do all the work for senators. In other words, Rubio really, really wants these public hearings.

Why would that be? It’s maybe because Rubio wants a bill to pass and he thinks an “open” process will help make it easier for conservatives to swallow, or it may be because he’s keeping his options open in case he needs to eject from being associated with a major piece of legislation that could end up as a cornerstone of the Obama legacy.

I, too, started to have doubts, because the other thing that Rubio has going for him is that he's considered to be a competitor in the 2016 race for the White House, and those are aspirations that do not always intersect with lawmaking.

That said, in recent days, Rubio really has removed all doubt as to whether he has a sincere passion for getting immigration reform over the finish line. As the nativist-skeptic side of the GOP base has remounted the campaign to throw shade on the immigration reform effort, it's Marco Rubio who's raced to put out every fire. In response to a claim that the bill would create the Marco Rubio version of the Obama phone, Rubio plunged headlong into the fray with a forceful response and a video explainer. He's been on a Defense Against The Dark Arts tour ever since, making a return trip to Rush Limbaugh's show, and running a radio-row gauntlet of amnesty-panic skeptics.

Thus, it's hard to doubt Rubio's sincerity anymore. He's clearly decided that immigration reform is worthy of wagering his political capital. And the GOP establishment has invested much in Rubio's political future -- it goes hand-in-hand with the party's overall "rebranding" effort. But even with momentum, aligned incentives, and Rubio's consistent, insistent efforts, there remain many pitfalls on the road ahead.

1. Recent tragic events: How the attack on the Boston Marathon might affect the chances of immigration reform's passage is probably one of the most petty things about which to be concerned right now. But the impact it may have is nonetheless very real. While Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspect now in custody, is a naturalized U.S. citizen, his troubled brother Tamerlan had his application for citizenship held up by the Department of Homeland Security, by dint of the fact that he'd been questioned by the FBI "at the request of the Russian government, which suspected that he had ties to Chechen terrorists."

That was enough to open the xenophobic floodgates. Per Robert Reich:

Senator Rand Paul in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today urged him to reconsider immigration legislation because of the bombings in Boston. “The facts emerging in the Boston Marathon bombing have exposed a weakness in our current system,” Paul writes. “If we don’t use this debate as an opportunity to fix flaws in our current system, flaws made even more evident last week, then we will not be doing our jobs.”

Senator Chuck Grassley, senior Republican senator on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for an immigration reform bill, is using much the same language—suggesting that the investigation of two alleged Boston attackers will “help shed light on the weaknesses of our system.”

This is one of the issues that Rubio -- as reform's de facto public defender -- has been forced to finesse with critics, and he's done so by gamely offering to address these issues within the larger debate on the bill. In the main, Rubio has remained confident that while this may hamper his effort, concerns over Boston can still be surmounted. Nevertheless, there are cracks: he's since entertained the notion that Muslim students should be denied visas.

But as Gabriel Arana writes: "As numerous commentators have pointed out, there is no reasonable change to the immigration system that would have stopped Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev from becoming radicalized and carrying out the attacks in Boston." But Congress is not typically known for sobriety following a terrorist attack. The Tsarnaev brothers have thus given reform skeptics a crack at which to pick.

2. The "GOP suicide" argument: Of course, the tragedy in Boston is not the only weakness that opponents of reform can attack. In terms of the policy, critics dislike two things about the reform package in particular: the "path to citizenship" -- which fervent opponents still consider to be amnesty writ large -- and the border enforcement "trigger" that might just be a "goal." The latter will, in all likelihood, be the key sticking point with GOP lawmakers, many of whom might be amenable to a "path to citizenship" on both practical and humane grounds, but won't be able to convince their constituents to let them cast a "yea" vote without ironclad assurance that the Southwestern border won't get locked down tight.

But skepticism over the policy might get trumped by skepticism over the politics. By which I mean, the extant fear that the passage of comprehensive immigration reform is tantamount to "GOP suicide." Here's Rush Limbaugh, during his April 26 broadcast:

Well, this illegal number, 11 million, that's the smallest number anybody's ever been using. And obviously 11 million's a little more palatable than 20 million, making it easier to sell. But now this group, NumbersUSA, says over a 10-year period. We're talking about 33 million people. So right there, if that number is right, we're talking, according to polling data that exists today, out of 33 million people over 10 years, 25 million of them would be Democrats, and eight million would be Republicans. According to polling data today.

So if you want to look at it that way, over 10 years, 25 million new Democrats? It's like The Politico said last week, folks, that's the end of the Republican Party. That wipes it out for a generation. The Politico wrote that story, the end of the Republican Party.

Ahh, yes. That Politico story that Limbaugh is referring to was a mess of innumerate, alarmist nonsense (they've sort of been on a hot streak of innumerate, alarmist nonsense lately) that claimed that immigration reform represented a certain future "bonanza" for the Democratic Party. The New Republic's Nate Cohn could not believe what he was reading: "While it's worth considering the electoral consequences of immigration reform, Politico’s effort is worse than no effort at all." He went on at length, tearing apart Politico's math, which "assumed that each and every one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants will become citizens and vote for the Democratic candidate by a 71-27 margin" and that "every undocumented worker will become a citizen, and that every new citizen will vote in the 2028 election."

This is ludicrous. Only 50 percent of eligible Hispanic voters and 59 percent of all eligible voters turned out in the 2012 election, and there’s little reason to think that newly documented immigrants will participate at unprecedented levels. If anything, there’s reason to believe to believe that they would participate at lower rates, since they would need to get registered and then vote for the first time.

Not all undocumented workers will become citizens, either. Politico concedes as much, noting that “there is no way of knowing” how many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants would gain citizenship. There isn’t a reliable estimate of this, but a recent Latino Decisions survey found that 87 percent of them want to become citizens and 85 percent have family members in the United States. Assuming 85 percent instead of 100 percent would have been far more reasonable, especially since Politico assumes that all 11 million of them will still be alive in 2028.

Yes, Politico seems to have forgotten that the Hispanic vote, while coveted, is not, strictly speaking, immortal. Otherwise, no political party would dare cross them! But the bottom line is that Cohn's more intelligent projections bottom-lines immigration reform's electoral effect as exceedingly slight:

Newly legal immigrants would only add 0.6 percentage points to the Democratic nominee’s share of the vote in 2028, or increase the margin of victory by 1.3 points. In Texas, where legalizing undocumented immigrants will improve Democratic performance the most, Romney’s big victory last year would have shrunk by only 4 points. Even in states with large Hispanic populations, like Florida or Colorado, Democrats would only gain about 0.5 percentage points.

But there's going to be no convincing the loudest faction of reform opponents, who remain steadfast in their belief that "the larger effect of this immigration bill will cripple Republicans nationally for the foreseeable future."

3. Obama's support: I know it sounds inane, but the very fact that Obama may sign the bill could be reason enough for the GOP to destroy it. Who wants to hand the president they hate a big legacy item, after all? Beyond that, there is latent suspicion of Obama's motives. Take Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (please!):

“I think the reason the White House is insisting on a path to citizenship for those who are here illegally is because the White House knows that insisting on that is very likely to scuttle the bill,” Cruz told Jan Crawford, adding that it would allow Democrats to run on immigration reform in the 2014 midterms.

“What would you do with the 11 million people who are here illegally?” Crawford asked later in the interview. ”I think there could probably be a compromise on that,” Cruz answered, “if the a path to citizenship was taken off the table.”

The shorter version of this argument is "I don't necessarily want to vote against immigration reform, but Obama might make me, with his sneakiness." Meanwhile, it's actually John McCain who is making the strongest case for the path to citizenship:

“There’s no way of getting this job done without giving people a path to citizenship,” McCain said. Speaking of the sub-citizenship legal status that some Republicans favor, McCain added: “Legal status is not something that someone should have to remain in unless they want to. And to say that you can have legal status, but you can’t have ever a path to become a citizen of this country … offends fundamental principles of fairness in our society.”

“I know that that opposition is there,” McCain continued. ”I don’t think it’s valid. And I don’t think it’s held even by a majority of Republicans -- certainly not in the Senate.”

Well, the good news for McCain is that no, Ted Cruz does not represent a majority of senators. But look, we all know that there's a good chance that immigration reform is going to survive the Senate. Where is it likely to meet its demise?

4. The House Of Representatives: The reason that the Octogäng is hoping against hope that they pull off a 70-vote win, is because the result might be bold enough to influence the decision-making of the far more skeptical members of the House GOP caucus. Any amount of "x-factor" would be helpful, because at the moment, the outlook for getting reform through the House is pretty mixed.

But the National Review's Robert Costa -- who's so close to the pulse of the GOP that he could probably insert a stent should some cardiac emergency arise -- notes that House Speaker John Boehner has lately embraced the "regular order" as a means of transforming the House into a "slow-motion sausage factory":

In Beltway-speak, this meant that, from then on, Boehner would chiefly use the committees to craft legislation. Lawmaking, in almost every sense, would be slowed down. Instead of being the subject of haggling in the Oval Office over Merlot and Nicorette, bills would be amended and fleshed out through committee hearings, the way they have been since time immemorial.


“Regular order” is cited inside the Republican cloakroom as a slightly subversive way in which the president can be stalled. Boehner’s shift has created a slow-motion sausage factory for Obama’s legislative projects. Even if the Democratic-controlled Senate passes a bill, it faces a tortuous procedural future in the lower chamber.

And the implications for immigration? Costa has the answer:

Consider immigration. Several sources close to the leadership say that even if the Senate passes something on immigration, the bill will be immediately sent to the committees, and then either sent back to the Senate with changes, or rewritten in a bicameral conference committee. This means that the chance of the Senate’s Gang of Eight bill coming to the House floor, as is, is nearly non-existent. House Republicans would first have to mull it, schedule hearings, and then tinker with its legislative language.

That tweaking process could take months, which is just fine with many Republicans, who’d like the public to have as much time as possible to chew over the controversial elements of Obama’s prized bills. The caucus consensus is: The more time Congress takes to consider a bill, the more time the public has to sour on its components.

Now, it's worth pointing out that Jonathan Chait, nevertheless believes Boehner will "betray his base on immigration," and is not sure that "months" of "tweaking process" will redound to the GOP's benefit:

Months! That sounds fun. But here is the problem. The whole point of immigration reform for Republicans -- other than, you know, helping people, which no doubt moves them very deeply -- is to rebrand the party. A drawn-out immigration debate commanding center stage will simply create more opportunities for conservative Republicans to say offensive things about Latinos. And make no doubt: however diligently their consultants coach them not to, they will say offensive things about Latinos. So far we’ve had one Republican member call undocumented immigrants “wetbacks” and another publicly muse that some of them may be secret al Qaeda agents.

And we've only just begun! A whole summer of this stuff could drive the Democratic share of the Latino vote into the 80s.

Of course, if enough House Republicans accept the Rush Limbaugh "GOP suicide" frame, any rise in the share of the Latino vote will serve as an excellent argument against immigration reform.

Nevertheless, the point is well taken. For the GOP especially, comprehensive immigration reform represents a significant crossroads, at which Republicans will decide whether they're going to accept the major premises of the "rebranders," and allow Marco Rubio -- once heralded as a certain "golden boy" in both the party and the movement -- to have the political career that everyone seemed eager to extend to him two short years ago.

Will comprehensive immigration reform make it? As always, I'm afraid I have to advise you to take a long position on cynicism.

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