Remaining an Optimist on CIR Is Becoming Harder and Harder Even After House Democrats Introduce a Comprehensive Reform Measure

In an effort to jumpstart stalled comprehensive immigration reform deliberations, the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives introduced their version of a comprehensive immigration reform bill on October 2. “The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” is modeled after S.744, the Senate bill that passed that chamber in late June. The introduction of the H.R.15 was part of an orchestrated series of events, including marches and vigils that took place across the country to remind the public that immigration reform is among the many pieces of business that remain unfinished while Congress is in fiscal lockdown. While perhaps more symbolic than realistic – the bill is unlikely go anywhere given the Republican House members’ preference for piecemeal legislation and a refusal to vote for any measure that includes a pathway for citizenship for the undocumented – it is at least an important step toward keeping immigration reform in the conversation. Nevertheless, the stalemate on immigration continues, as does other important legislative matters.

To recap where we are on immigration reform: In late June, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill, a sweeping and long overdue overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws. For months since its passage, the House of Representatives dragged its collective feet to consider the bill.  Instead, four piecemeal bills were approved by House committees, but have yet to be sent to the full House of Representatives for a floor vote, and none addresses legalization. Then, in mid September, two House Republicans who had been trying to draft a comprehensive immigration package dropped out of bipartisan negotiations. Texas Republican Representatives John Carter and Sam Johnson said that they had “reached a tipping point” in the talks and could no longer continue working on a broad approach to rewrite the country’s immigration laws. Their leaving basically dismantled the so-called Gang of Seven bipartisan group in the House that has struggled to draft legislation.   H.R. 15 has no Republican sponsors.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee,  has promised action on immigration reform legislation and has been working on four separate bills in addition to the four already approved by the committee.  Optimists note that a piecemeal approach could result in House approval of a series of bills that could lead to negotiations with the Senate on a compromise immigration reform bill.  Pessimists, on the other hand, point to the remarks of House Speaker John Boehner, who has expressed reluctance to bring the bill to a vote.  The refusal appears to be an acknowledgment of the so-called “Hastert Rule,” a principle used to limit voting to only those bills supported by a majority of the majority party. This is the same rule that has prevented a vote in the full House of Representatives on a “clean” continuing resolution to keep the government open from going forward.

Finding congressional common ground on the various immigration reform bills seems formidable – it always is – but a bigger obstacle may be the full agenda still awaiting lawmakers, including the budget and debt ceiling. According to one insider, the chance of CIR becoming law in 2013 is zero percent; the chance of enactment in 2014 is greater than zero.

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