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The GOP Fails (Again) to Engage on Immigration Reform

U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner listens to a question during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 6, 2014

Just a week after unveiling Republican “standards” for immigration reform, House speaker John Boehner all but shut down forward movement of immigration reform at a press conference on Thursday, citing distrust of the President and bad timing for the GOP.  While the Senate passed a comprehensive set of measures last spring, the House path was to include, step-by-step, a number of discrete bills to address some of the hottest issues, most importantly, what to do about the 11 million estimated undocumented immigrants. 

Despite agreement that the current system has not been working for some time, what immigration reform looks like and when it will happen are matters of great debate.  Regardless of what happened in the past week or so, deeper political cleavages are becoming more apparent as politicians on all sides run out of excuses that would allow them continue to ignore policy changes to our immigration system.

Fortunately, just after Speaker Boehner’s press conference, I ran into my colleague Tom Mann, a congressional scholar and an expert on partisanship.  Our conversation lasted a ride of only five short floors on the elevator, so I took the opportunity to follow up with Tom in the written form.

Me: The divide within the Republican Party over immigration reform seems pretty intense.  On the one hand Speaker Boehner put out immigration standards to test the water, but also to appeal to the part of the party that wants to move ahead and sounds willing to work with Democrats.  On the other hand, Boehner’s recent comments appear to yield to the extremists.  How do you see this playing out with regard to immigration reform? 

Tom Mann:  The standards seemed to me designed for the business community and other more pragmatic interests within the party.  But this Republican Party establishment is in a relatively weak position.  The “extremists” are not a fringe group among elected officials but the party mainstream.  I doubt that the Republicans will allow any serious immigration bill to emerge from Congress before the 2016 elections.

Me: Okay, that question was talking about politicians’ stances.  But what about the people? Polls show that overall the share of the public that supports letting immigrants without legal status stay in the country provided they meet certain criteria (they have been here for awhile, have a job, speak English and pay back taxes) is high and has increased over time.  Even among Republicans, a majority favor a bill that allowed those immigrants to stay in this country rather than being deported and eventually allow them to apply for U.S. citizenship.  If that’s the case, with such high levels of support, how do we explain the Republican leadership’s hesitancy to pursue reform and instead bow to a small faction of constituents? 

TM:  It’s not a small fraction of their primary voters, donors and activists.  At the very least it is a substantial and intense minority.  General public opinion seldom leads elected officials to change their position on major issues.  Mass publics don’t determine winners in House elections, especially at midterm.  Republican leaders believe they can buy time by blaming Obama for his “untrustworthiness” on Obamacare and immigration policy.  There is a huge market among conservatives for demonizing the President and opposing any policies that he espouses. 

Me: Rep. Luiz Gutierrez, the most outspoken member of Congress in favor of comprehensive reform reacted by tweet to Speaker Boehner’s message, asserting that waiting to move on reform is not realistic and the GOP should take action or pay the political consequences later.  What do Republicans gain from waiting?  And is it worth it considering the losses at stake?



TM:  It all depends on which Republicans you mean.  Speaker Boehner removes for the time being a divisive issue within the Republican Party (useful as he navigates the debt ceiling increase) and provides some protection to those of his colleagues worried about fending off Tea Party challengers in their primary.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and most his party colleagues believe passing an immigration bill before the 2014 elections will divide their Republican base and damage what they believe are good odds of regaining Senate majority control.  Both Boehner and McConnell understand the political imperative of increasing their party’s support among nonwhite voters before the 2016 presidential election but view the costs of doing so now too high.  They and the majority of Republicans in the House and Senate have no appetite for angering conservative activists and likely anti-immigration voters in a low turnout election.

The proximate goal of winning majority control of Congress in 2014 takes precedence over their longer-term interest in positioning the party to compete successfully in presidential elections.

Me: It’s taken a lot of time and political capital for Democrats and Republicans to reach a compromise in the Senate.  When current efforts fail, how long will it take Democrats to reach back across the aisle? Will they hold a bargaining chip?

TM: Once Democrats believe with certainty that they have no prospect of cutting a deal with Republicans on immigration policy, they will use the issue in the 2016 campaign to try to regain unified party control of both ends of Pennsylvania and pass immigration reform largely on their own.

Me: So, looks like you don’t expect much on the contested pieces of immigration reform before 2016 at the earliest?

TM: That’s right.  But your guess is as good as mine, Audrey! 

  • Audrey Singer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. Her areas of expertise include demography, international migration, U.S. immigration policy, and urban and metropolitan change. She has written extensively on U.S. immigration trends, including immigrant integration, undocumented migration, naturalization and citizenship, and the changing racial and ethnic composition of the United States.

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