Talking Past Each Other on Immigration Reform

Everybody’s talking about immigration reform, but with the Congress about to switch from divided control to two Houses united under Republican leadership, it’s not really clear that anybody even knows what it means anymore.

The point was hammered home on Sunday morning in an exchange between Tea Party favorite Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) who appeared on a panel during CNN’s State of the Union

Related: GOP Will Try to Block Obama’s Immigration Order

Coons complained that after the Senate passed a bipartisan package of comprehensive immigration reforms in 2013, the House of Representatives did nothing.

“They’ve had more than a year almost a year and a half now since the Senate passed a broad bipartisan bill – that was led in part by Republican senators – and have taken no action on it.”

“That’s not true,” interrupted Bachmann. “That is not true. We did pass an immigration bill – and a remarkable bill – where you had the Tea Party and establishment Republicans all agree. We passed an immigration bill and sent it over to Harry Reid in August.”

The contrast between what the two different parties consider an immigration bill could hardly have been more starkly defined. (Bachmann is retiring, but it’s safe to say that she is representative of the far right element that will remain highly influential in the Republican Conference when the 114th Congress convenes in January.) 

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The bill Coons was referring to, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, was a substantial piece of legislation. Among other things, it did the following:

  • Added thousands of new border security personnel and increased the funding available for border-related immigration enforcement.
  • Created a “Registered Provisional Immigrant” status that offered qualifying illegal immigrants a path to citizenship after paying various penalties and meeting a number of requirements
  • Created an expedited path for immigrants brought here illegally as children
  • Revamped the various immigrant visa programs
  • Overhauled the immigration enforcement system in general, including funding for understaffed immigration courts
  • Required all employers to use the “E-Verify” system, which allows the electronic verification of a worker’s legal status 

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The bills Bachmann was referring to were, by contrast, far less comprehensive. A supplemental budgetary measure passed August 1 would have increased funding for border enforcement, and made it easier to deport child migrants from certain Central American countries who, under current law, are required to be given a hearing in federal immigration court to see if they are at risk of violence, sex trafficking, or persecution if they return home. It would also have stripped the President of the authority to exercise discretion in determining who gets deported and who is allowed to remain, even temporarily, in the U.S.

A second bill, passed just hours after the first one, would have eliminated the administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which suspended deportations for some illegal immigrants brought to the country as minor children.

The stark difference between what different factions in Congress consider sufficient treatment of the illegal immigration issue suggests that any resolution of the ongoing debate may be unattainable at the moment or, with the 2016 presidential election looming, any time soon. 

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Reflecting on his own struggles with immigration reform a decade ago, former Congressman David Dreier last week said, “The issue of immigration has become one of the ugliest out there.”

Dreier, a California Republican who served 32 years in Congress before retiring in 2013, was reflecting on the blowback he faced after speaking out in favor of immigration reform proposed under the George W. Bush administration. Speaking at a roundtable at Claremont McKenna College in California, he recalled being subject to years of withering attacks from anti-immigration groups who viewed him as too soft on illegal immigrants.

Dreier said that he believes there is a broad consensus among Republicans in the Senate and the House to come to an agreement on reform, but he remained concerned that politics would get in the way.

Related: GOP Could Cut Funds to Scuttle Obama’s Immigration Order

The President’s expected executive action to delay deportations of more illegal immigrants is likely to act as a catalyst for those opposed to any compromise with the White House. As Republican strategist Mike Murphy noted on the same panel as Dreier, Democrats have a possible incentive for creating that ill will.

“In the rubble of defeat it is easy to get mean and cynical and political in a partisan situation,” he said. “There are going to be voices in the White house saying. ‘Mr. President, go do the executive order on immigration…Republicans will overreact like crazy and it will do huge damage to the GOP.”

And if it plays out that way, with each party postponing action on reform in the hope that it will do damage to the other party’s hopes for 2016, the only thing we can count on over the next two years is more demagoguery, more deportations, and less certainty about U.S. immigration policy.

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