Immigration reform: the politics of the possible

Winning over House Republicans based on Senate pressure and worry over the Latino vote won’t work. The case for reform must be argued on its merits.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada answers a question about immigration reform in the House on Nov. 5. Op-ed contributor Rebecca Tallent writes: 'The fact is that the only way immigration reform will happen with this Congress is if members who represent districts that may otherwise seem unlikely to be affected by reform are sold on its merits.'

Coming out of the 2012 election, comprehensive immigration reform seemed inevitable. The political power of the growing Latino population combined with a newly elected, popular president making reform his top legislative priority seemed like a recipe for fast action.

Unfortunately, comprehensive reform has not made it to the president’s desk for a number of political and policy-related reasons. Now, advocates for reform are wondering if the window for legislative action that opens between election cycles has closed. While the government shutdown and looming deadlines for another fiscal crisis are impeding passage this year, there is still an opportunity to make it happen in this Congress. 

First, we must understand how we got to the place we are now. The miscalculations began with what could be called the “overwhelming political momentum” strategy, in which advocates for reform solely focused their energies on Senate passage, assuming the House would have no choice but to simply take up and pass the Senate bill. It was a gross misunderstanding of the dynamics between the House and the Senate, and, frankly, of the Republican Party itself.

Historically, there has always been a tension between the two bodies of Congress. Representatives take the “lower body” distinction to heart and often feel that their priorities are dictated by senators. In turn, the Senate feels that the House is too reactionary and lacking perspective on the long-term good of the country. This dynamic generally produces a healthy balance of power, but since the passage of a number of large, comprehensive pieces of legislation, such as the Affordable Care Act, the tension has become downright hostile. 

Since the 2010 elections, the House has become increasingly conservative, wary of big government, and consequently suspicious of massive legislative proposals such as the comprehensive immigration reform bill recently passed by the Senate. Not only will the House GOP leadership not take up a bill whose pages number in the thousands, but it will take particular offense to a massive bill that comes out of the Democratic-controlled Senate.

For the House to pass immigration reform, it needs an opportunity to work through its own process, moving smaller, piecemeal bills that members feel they have the opportunity to review and allow their constituents to vet. Politically, members of the House are also facing a different dynamic in their districts than their Senate counterparts who run for state-wide office. The fact is that the majority of House members come from gerrymandered districts that make surviving their party primary the main obstacle for reelection. 

Many Republicans have a small Latino population in their districts and are more concerned with the conservative faction that decides their primaries. Until voting patterns change in primary elections, this will continue to be the case. The assumption that political pressure to win over Latinos would be so overwhelming that the House would have no choice but to move the Senate bill didn’t account for the political reality of newly redrawn voting districts.

If Republicans in the House are going to pass immigration reform, they will need to be sold on the policy and its merits, not on the politics of reform.Unfortunately, many advocates are finding themselves ill-equipped to make the case to Republicans. One advocate, who has been working on immigration reform for years, said recently that the problem with the advocacy movement is that they never had a real working relationship with Republicans and therefore don’t know how to even discuss reform with them. They use the same pressure tactic as they would with Democrats and it just isn’t working. 

Some advocates have tried to change this dynamic by engaging historically Republican leaders, such as those in the business, faith, and law enforcement communities. These leaders are communicating the need for reform to their elected officials in a way that these lawmakers understand and appreciate. However, it is still critical that advocates of reform such as the US Chamber of Commerce and evangelical Christian leaders translate this outreach to the voting booth, where it matters the most.

On the policy front, though, it is also important to recognize that several areas of agreement already exist across the political spectrum on future immigration policy. Most people who are serious about fixing the immigration system through legislative reform can agree on the basic principles that the United States needs to secure its borders, that future immigrants must have legal avenues to enter the country, and that the nation must deal with the status of undocumented individuals who are already here. More broadly, both Democrats and Republicans agree that a robust immigration system will grow the struggling US economy. 

While contentious debate continues to surround the details of how to address these reform issues, the fact that most people agree on what the problems are is a significant step forward, particularly compared with the debates in 2006 and 2007. The main goal should be to move the debate along in a constructive manner. A generally agreed-upon structure for reform – perhaps in the form of a step-by-step approach – will significantly add to momentum.

Inside the Beltway, people enjoy spending hours debating the most effective process for moving legislation through Congress. They debate timing, voting dynamics, party dynamics, and personal dynamics. The fact is that the only way immigration reform will happen with this Congress is if members who represent districts that may otherwise seem unlikely to be affected by reform are sold on its merits. If advocates and constituents can do that effectively and with a sense of urgency, there is still a chance for reform before the 2014 elections.  

Rebecca Tallent is the director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Immigration Task Force and previously served as chief of staff to Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. 

Editor's note: The original version incorrectly identified the writer's title at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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