Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Immigration Reform Heads to the Republican Controlled House of Representatives

Immigration reform passed the Senate last week with a vote of 68-32.  The issue now heads to the House of Representatives, where it's future is less certain.

While almost 70 Senators voted for the reform bill, the fact remains that only 14, or less than one-third, of Republican Senators voted for it.

Unlike the Senate, the House is controlled by Republicans.  Speaker of the House, John Boehner, is not likely to bring proposed legislation to the floor for a vote unless a majority of the House Republicans are in favor of it.  Although Republicans are in favor of certain reform measures, there is one issue that Republicans may strongly contest.

Namely, the pathway to citizenship for those already present in the country may turn out to be a measure House Republicans won't swallow.  In a way, Republicans may be guided by the politics of self-preservation.  On the one hand, PBS reports that most House Republicans are in safe districts.  This means that if those Republicans vote in favor of a pathway to citizenship, they are more likely to face a primary challenge from a conservative candidate angry over immigration reform than a strong Democratic challenge in the November 2014 elections.

Then, there is the issue of what would happen to the future electoral chances of the Republican Party if millions of Latinos already present in the United States become full citizens with voting rights.  Although it is a mistake to consider Latinos as a single, unified group (Cubans tend to vote differently than Mexicans, for example), in generally Latinos tend to vote Democratic.  In the last election, over two-thirds of the Latino vote went to President Obama.  Republicans will be very reluctant to endanger their future electoral success by voting for a pathway to citizenship.

That is not to say that Republicans oppose immigration reform.  Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick published an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal making a Republican case for immigration reform.  Their emphasis was on reducing family based immigration in favor of more employment based immigration.  The two viewed this as the House of Representative's opportunity to make changes to the Senate proposal, more in line with conservative values.  The House, for example, can insist on greater border control measures.  Regarding the path to citizenship, Bush and Bolick would make the civics test for naturalization more challenging.

In the end, Bush and Bolick state that Republicans have more in common with immigrants, such as "beliefs in hard work, enterprise, family, education, patriotism and faith."  Bush and Bolick urge Republicans to stop being an obstacle to reform, "and instead point the way toward the solution."

Of course, there may be a way to push for reform, with providing some political cover for House Republicans.  This is through the use of the discharge petition.  If 218 House members sign a discharge petition, then the legislation would come to the floor of the House for a vote despite opposition of the House leadership.   This is a rare occurrence, as it requires a few members of the majority party to join forces with the minority party in order to bypass House leadership.  In normal circumstances, this would mean reprisals against the those members of the majority party who side with the minority party.

A discharge petition, however, may be exactly what House Republican leaders need to allow immigration reform to come to a vote without making it look like their fingerprints are on it.  That is, if there is pressure from Republican leaders outside of the House to bring the measure to the floor, the House leadership could work behind the scenes to encourage those Republicans in the House who support the measure to sign the discharge petition and force the measure to come to the floor.  Then, the House leadership and the majority of the House Republicans could go back to their districts and claim that they had nothing to do with immigration reform and even voted against it.

This is just one vision of how things could proceed in the House.  As of this moment, it is just speculation.  Steve Benen of MSNBC reports that the House already has a bipartison group working on its own version of immigration reform legislation.  If nothing else, immigration reform may continue to dominate Washington politics for a few months before we know what the outcome will be.

By:  William J. Kovatch, Jr.
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