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Immigration Politics Enter A New Phase As GOP Stomps On Reform

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AP Photo / Jose Luis Magana

It has been clear for quite some time that most House Republicans don't want to pass immigration reform, and they've kept their ambivalent leaders in line. Pro-reform advocates have been loath to give up their push for legislative action, but there are signs that even they are moving on. The clearest indication is they've recently turned their fire on Obama, demanding he act unilaterally to ease deportations and make life easier for the millions of people living in the country illegally.

"We consider him the deportation president, or the deporter-in-chief," Janet Murguía, the president of the pro-immigration National Council of La Raza, told Politico early March. The remark set off another debate about Obama's deportation policies and rankled the White House. Days later, the president revealed he has ordered Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson to "see how [the department] can conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law." The subtext: Obama is considering easing up on undocumented immigrants who haven't committed crimes.

That's the next phase of immigration politics: proposed executive changes to enforcement and deportation policies, and the reaction from advocates on both ends of the spectrum. House Republicans are already gearing up to attack Obama: last week Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who oversees immigration enforcement, and 15 colleagues demanded information from DHS about "criminal immigrants" and how the administration is dealing with them.

Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is stuck in an awkward dance in which he keeps saying he wants to act on immigration reform but keeps getting thwarted by his conservative flank, which adamantly opposes any form of leniency for people living in the U.S. illegally. The latest episode came on Friday, shortly after the Obama-Cantor spat, where Boehner was reported as telling donors in private he's "hellbent" on passing immigration reform this year, sparking off a new round of speculation. His spokesman, Brendan Buck, quickly advised journalists to "chill" and reminded them that reform "won't happen until the president builds trust and demonstrates a commitment to the rule of law."

Democrats have bent over backwards trying to accommodate the GOP's concerns in a way that doesn't shatter the fragile pro-reform coalition -- which includes Hispanics, business, labor, tech, and religious leaders. They've offered to dial back the guarantee of citizenship for unauthorized immigration and even have the legislation take effect after Obama leaves office in 2017. It hasn't worked.

The 2014 mid-term politics of immigration are effectively a wash. In the Senate, there's a virtual detente on the issue in contested races as Republicans don't want to inflame Hispanics and vulnerable Democrats in red states don't want to inflame conservatives. In the House, the make-up of districts doesn't give Democrats much to work with: 84 percent of GOP-held districts have fewer than 20 percent Hispanic populations. Democratic leaders believe the issue is relevant in no more than 9 to 20 districts. And the heavy conservative make-up of GOP districts is why the momentum within the House majority is against reform.

Democrats doubt that immigration reform has a fighting chance after the 2014 elections, when the focus will turn to the 2016 presidential primaries and Republicans will be duking it out over who's tougher on "amnesty." Not to mention, the Senate-passed bill will be defunct in 2015 and the chamber will have to start all over. The prospects of sweeping legislative action will further diminish as Obama fades into lame-duck status.

The politics of the 2016 presidential election are brutal for Republicans if they kill reform. It's why Boehner and Cantor are agonizing over the issue; it's why they tested the prospects of reform by endorsing a set of "principles" that included legal status (without the promise of citizenship) for unauthorized immigrants, before conservatives reigned them in. They've since blamed the demise of reform on Obama's ostensible lawlessness. Democrats are pleading with Boehner to simply allow a vote on the Senate-passed bill and let them carry it to victory, but he has ruled that out. Permitting a vote on that bill would infuriate the GOP base, likely jeopardizing Boehner's speakership and compelling his successor to attempt to reverse the progress. Until a sufficient numbers Republicans are on board, the issue won't be settled.

A huge problem for Republicans is that the only immigration-related bill they've brought up and passed in the 113th Congress is Rep. Steve King's (R-IA) measure to require the deportation of so-called DREAMers, or people brought to the U.S. unlawfully as children. (A second bill they passed more recently targets Obama's executive actions more broadly and would have a similar impact.) King and his politics are toxic with Hispanic voters, and Democrats will repeat that talking point over and over in the run-up to the 2016 in the hopes of destroying the GOP's brand with the country's fastest-growing demographic.

"It's the right position and makes sense and is consistent with a majority of our conference -- a significant majority of our conference," King told TPM in February, referring to Boehner's turn against reform. He said conservatives will keep the heat on Republican leaders and "man the watchtowers because things could change." So far, King is winning.

About The Author

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Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at sahil@talkingpointsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.