No, We Aren't Getting Closer to Immigration Reform

Yesterday, congressional Republicans released a set of principles on immigration reform which are supposed to guide the writing of an actual plan. This has led some optimistic people to say that perhaps some kind of compromise between the two parties might be worked out, and reform could actually pass. I'm sorry to say that they're going to be disappointed.

I might be proved wrong in the end. But I doubt it, because the fundamental incentives and the dynamics of the issue haven't changed. You still have a national party that would like very much to pass reform, and individual members of that party in the House of Representatives who have nothing to gain, and much to lose, by signing on to any reform that would be acceptable to Democrats and thus have a chance of passing the Senate and being signed by the President. So it isn't going to happen.

Now it's true that in the wake of the government shutdown and the various debt ceiling crises, House conservatives have slightly less power to force the rest of the GOP to bend to their will. But only slightly. One thing hasn't changed: the average House Republican still comes from a safe district where the only real threat to his job is a primary challenge from the right. He knows that his primary voters are people who watch Fox News and listen to conservative talk radio, where they hear things like Laura Ingraham telling them that jingoistic Mexicans are trying to take over America, which is why "your language [that'd be English] is gone," while Rush Limbaugh rails at the Republican immigration principles as the wolf of "amnesty" in sheep's clothing. Today's Drudge Report featured a graphic of John Boehner in a sombrero, and it wasn't a compliment. As one Southern Republican member of Congress told Buzzfeed, "If you go to town halls people say things like, 'These people have different cultural customs than we do.' And that's code for race."

Even in the slightly less bombastic reaches of the conservative media, forces are pushing against doing anything on immigration. "Bringing immigration to the floor insures [sic] a circular GOP firing squad, instead of a nicely lined-up one shooting together and in unison at Obamacare and other horrors of big government liberalism," advises the Weekly Standard. "Since there really is no need to act this year on immigration, don’t. Don’t even try." The National Review offers the same counsel, for the same reason. "The correct course is easy and eminently achievable: Do nothing...the last thing the party needs is a brutal intramural fight when it has been dealt a winning hand on Obamacare."

And here's the thing: they're right. The best outcome for the Republican party as a whole is the passage of reform with their cooperation, which might at least begin the process of healing all the damage they've done to their image with Hispanic voters. But the worst outcome is a lengthy, angry debate about immigration in which there are lots of ugly comments made by their more conservative members, and which ends in reform failing, which would of course be blamed on the GOP's antipathy toward Hispanics. And that is by far the most likely outcome.

In theory, John Boehner could bring to the floor a bill like the one the Senate passed last June, with increases in border enforcement and a long and difficult process for undocumented immigrants to eventually find their way to citizenship. But he's already promised never to do so. Too many House Republicans—and not just the most ardent Tea Partiers—won't accept a bill that includes any path to citizenship.11Somebody obviously told Republicans that they are no longer allowed to use the phrase "path to citizenship," but must now use the phrase "special path to citizenship" when saying they oppose it. It's ridiculous, because of course any path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is going to be special—it will be particular to them, and different from the path that a documented immigrant will take, in that it will be much more difficult and take a lot longer. But saying they oppose a "special" path to citizenship is a handy excuse for opposing any path to citizenship. (This may remind you of how conservatives used to say they opposed "special rights" for gay people, which meant things like the right not to get fired or kicked out of your home for being gay.) The statement Republicans put out yesterday is a bit vague, but it seems to imply some kind of second-class citizenship for undocumented immigrants, wherein after jumping through a whole bunch of hoops, they'd be given some kind of legal status, but they couldn't become citizens.

And for lots of House Republicans, even that's too much. So I'm pretty sure that before too long, Boehner and the rest of the House leadership are going to realize that there's just no point in moving forward. If anyone asks, they'll say they put out a proposal, but it couldn't go anywhere because of dastardly Democrats who wanted to give every undocumented immigrant amnesty. But mostly they'll just try to find something else to talk about.

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