Immigration reform: Boehner says it's down to a matter of 'trust'

Immigration reform, long stalled in the US House, is coming down to this: Republicans don’t trust President Obama to enforce immigration laws and won’t act on new legislation until that trust gap narrows. 

On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio said that distrust is “one of the biggest obstacles” to getting reform done.“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” he said. “And it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”

Democrats dubbed this new focus on “trust” a dodge to get around the fact that Boehner can’t control his fractious caucus. But some close observers of Congress’s difficult and protracted struggle over immigration debate see some promise in this turn in the debate.

For the first time in a very long time, policy differences are not at the heart of the immigration dispute – at least among many Republicans in the House, where immigration reform hit a wall after the Senate passed a bipartisan bill last year.

In an aside, Mr. Boehner commented Thursday that Republicans “by and large” support principles that he released at a private GOP retreat for House members a week ago. Both the president and key Democrats in the House have expressed openness to the principles, which allow for a path to legal status for some 11 million undocumented immigrants in America, but no “special” path to citizenship.

That said, the trust issue is a mountainous obstacle, depending on whose trust the president needs to win. If “trustees” include the faction of Republicans who will never agree to immigration reform, who dislike Mr. Obama so intensely that they can’t bring themselves to support anything he supports, then, no, he is unlikely to ever win their trust. But if it refers to the Republican leadership – and if it is the leadership that is driving reform in the House – it is not mission impossible, according to some observers.

“Certainly, some Republicans, no matter what, say ‘We can’t trust this guy and we can’t negotiate with him.’ But they’re not the head of the party and they’re not the kingmaker,” says Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a moderate Democrat think tank. She, and others, can think of several ways that Mr. Obama can respond on the trust front.

Hold the line on deportations. The president is under tremendous pressure to ease up on deportations, even stop them altogether, especially given his State of the Union emphasis on using executive orders, when necessary, when Congress fails to act. But the president has so far held the line on these anti-deportation demands. There may be no better way to show that he’s enforcing the law than by reminding Congress that he’s doing that now in the face of huge pressure.

Keep working on the personal. Trust gets built through personal relationships – and as America has learned by now, schmoozing is not this professor-in-chief’s strong point. As Ms. Erickson Hatalsky points out, he may not be able to build relationships with the “backbenchers” but he can at least improve them with Republican leaders in the House. “He’s begun to do that,” she said, and if there is continued progress on issues such as a noneventful raising of the debt ceiling, that could continue.

Get others to reinforce the enforcement message. Republicans complain that Obama has ignored the law by blocking deportation action for children of illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria and by prioritizing enforcement for those who  are considered of highest risk to America. But this is well within the president’s authority, says Doris Meissner, director of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that studies global migration. Not only that, she says, the Obama administration has continued a 20-year trend of increasing spending and action on enforcement of US immigration laws. In fact, spending on immigration outpaces all other federal criminal law enforcement combined, she says.

This positive record of enforcement and its benefits should be voiced by police chiefs and mayors around the country, as well as leaders of other countries who are receiving record numbers of deportees,” not by a toxic president who’s made the case before, says Ms. Meissner. Many in Congress weren’t around for the last big immigration push and aren’t aware of the two-decade upward trend in enforcement, she adds.

These, however, are the views of outsiders. Democrats on the Hill and the White House don’t see the president as having to respond – the ball is in Boehner’s court, they say. He needs to follow through on his repeated line that he wants to get immigration reform done.

White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed the trust issue as irrelevant. ”The challenges within the Republican Party on this issue are well-known, and they certainly don’t have anything to do with the president,” Mr. Carney said.

A key House Democrat, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, echoed that sentiment: “I see this as a sad and desperate attempt by the speaker to blame the president for the speaker’s own inability to persuade his caucus of the importance of taking action on immigration reform,” he said, in an interview.

“I interpret this as the speaker throwing in the towel with his own caucus,” he added. Democrats had hoped – and “still hold out hope” – that House Republicans will move forward on immigration reform. “But these kinds of comments just poison the well” with Democrats.

In fact, many Republicans oppose taking up immigration in an election year, period. At his press conference Thursday, Boehner acknowledged the “difficulty” of getting immigration reform done in the House this year.

But Third Way’s Erickson Hatalsky suggests that if Boehner is sincere in wanting immigration reform – and many Democrats, even minority leader Nancy Pelosi, believe he is – he has plenty of cover to push an unpopular position, including from the business community and Evangelicals.

It’s possible, she adds, that Boehner could get started this year and finish next year. Republicans and Democrats are now “very close together” on the “big issues,” she says. “I’m feeling pretty optimistic that at least some progress will happen in this Congress.”

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