Predicting little progress on immigration reform in the next Congress, some of the nation’s top advocates say they’re shifting gears to focus on defending President Obama’s new deportation policy from GOP attacks.
“We’re not looking to Congress for relief in the next two years,” Frank Sharry, head of America’s Voice, an advocacy group, said Thursday during a breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington. “We’re looking to defend the win that we’ve had, and to set the stage to expand on that win.”Republican leaders in both chambers say they’re poised to act on immigration policy next year by breaking out certain provisions of a Senate-passed comprehensive reform bill — including efforts to bolster border security and interior enforcement — in hopes of sending them to President Obama’s desk.
But Obama and the Democrats are largely opposed to that strategy for fear that passing the popular provisions as stand-alone bills would doom the more controversial elements, particularly the legalization and citizenship benefits for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally.
“What we don’t want to do is simply carve out one piece of it … but leave behind some of the tougher stuff that still needs to get done,” Obama said last year.
That partisan conflict, the liberal advocates say, sets the stage for yet another two-year impasse on the thorny issue of reform policy.
“I don’t think that there’s any chance of comprehensive immigration reform this Congress,” said Marshall Fitz, an immigration expert at the liberal Center for American Progress.
With those dynamics in mind, liberal reform advocates say their focus is shifting to the implementation and defense of Obama’s new deportation policy, rather than expectations of bold congressional action.
“That’s going to be the movement’s priority. It is in the interest of our community to make this program a success,” said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, another group pushing for comprehensive reform.
“Republicans have a self-interest, politically, to work on it [comprehensive reform],” she added. “We just don’t see how they get their party together to actually provide a viable solution.”
In the absence of congressional action, Obama last month adopted new rules that will halt deportations and grant work permits to as many as 5 million illegal immigrants. The move outraged Republicans, who are searching for legislative ways to dismantle the program.
The GOP’s anger over Obama’s unilateral action complicates the debate for Republican leaders, according to the liberal reform advocates, because conservatives in both chambers — figures like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) — will likely fight to attach amendments undoing the executive action to any immigration-related bills that hit the floor.
Such amendments would almost certainly lead to an Obama veto, thereby reducing the odds that Congress will make progress on immigration reform before the 2016 presidential election.
Meanwhile, the advocates say, the administration is going to need all the help it can get installing the new deportation rules and getting people to participate.
“This is a huge undertaking,” Fitz said. “They’re going to be trying to implement this when they’re getting zero support from Congress, no appropriations, and they’re under a withering attack from the appropriators and the Republican leadership. So I think that they’re going to have more than enough to do and focus on in terms of making this a reality.”
Leading Republicans on and off Capitol Hill, meanwhile, are pushing their piecemeal approach to immigration in hopes of sending focused bills to Obama.
Included in their wish-list are proposals to strengthen border security, expand visas for high-tech workers, streamline a guest-worker program on the nation’s farms, establish a mandatory E-Verify system for businesses and create an exit-visa registry to rein in overstays.
“I would bust it up if I were setting the agenda in the Senate, start with border security, H-1B visa expansion, H-2A ag worker provisions, E–Verify and some of the other things I think we can get pretty broad agreement on,” Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the incoming majority leader, said earlier this month.
Republican activist Grover Norquist, who is pushing the GOP to adopt the piecemeal approach next year, said Obama would have a tough time vetoing bills that reach his desk with bipartisan support.
“It’s a losing issue for the Democrats if the Republicans just take this step-by-step,” Norquist said last month.
But the liberal reformers, while not opposed to that strategy per se, are quick to warn that it’s destined to fail if legalization and citizenship proposals are not included — provisions that have almost no chance of passing as stand-alone measures with Republicans controlling both chambers.
“We’re not against pieces moving. We’re against pieces moving without balance,” Sharry said. “By balance, I mean enforcement and legalization.”
Sharry said liberal advocates would have a difficult time opposing such a package, but he also predicted that conservative pressure on Republican leaders would prevent a “balanced” proposal from ever reaching the president’s desk.
“That would make it much more challenging for us to say no to, at that point, if it’s balanced,” Sharry said. “[But] the idea that the Republicans are going to be smart about legislating on immigration — and do so in a balanced fashion — that’s our dream, but I don’t see it happening.”
Fitz said advocates expect Republicans to use a number of tools — including more lawsuits, budget fights and threats of a partial government shutdown — to undo the new deportation policy. But he also predicted those efforts, while energizing each party’s base, will fail.
“There’s really very little that they can do,” Fitz said. “They have no legislative end-game here; there is none. … There’s going to be a lot of noise, but … at the end of the day I don’t think they’ve got a viable strategy to block this.”
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Immigration advocates shift to defense
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