What Happens If Immigration Reform Fails?

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

House Speaker John Boehner outside the White House last week

House Republicans' latest excuse for not passing immigration reform—that the congressional calendar is too stuffed with shutdowns and Syria dilemmas—is pretty silly. First, the debt ceiling hasn’t dropped into the fall session unceremoniously from the sky—this is an annual responsibility they knew would return since the last hellish time they raised our borrowing limit. Second, there’s absolutely nothing stopping the House from passing immigration reform ASAP. In a single day, Republican legislators could bring the Senate immigration bill for a floor vote in the House, where conventional wisdom says it has the votes to pass. "This is no longer a debate about policy. We've had ten years of debate," says Muzaffar Chishti, director of the New York office of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. "Every element of the policy discussion has been held and held repeatedly."

It's all about the politics, which for immigration means it's all about the stubborn, second-grader antics of Republican leaders. The big question is whether Speaker John Boehner is willing to risk his speakership by moving forward on immigration reform—despite staunch opposition from conservative members of his caucus, who fear retaliation from the Tea Party wing of the Republican base. With the mid-term elections coming up in 14 months, this year—and next year—may be a bust. National politics—not local, district level politics—is the magic dust that gets immigration reform passed. Every immigration-reform bill that's ever made it to the law books has sailed into Congress in advance of a presidential-election year. Advocates may have to wait until 2016 if the House conveniently forgets the current bill this fall.

These supporters are reluctant to concede defeat—they point out that pressure from the broad coalition of interests, including business and faith groups, is not going away, and that lack of reform is causing daily harm. "There's active pain raining down on immigrant communities and families—that's a powerful motivator," says Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. Over the August recess, dozens of immigrant-advocacy groups banded together under the name Alliance for Citizenship to push for immigration reform at town halls and through marches and rallies. But the crisis in Syria seems to have dampened some of the enthusiasm for reform—or at least put legislators' focus elsewhere.

What happens if immigration reform fails? The first thing to consider is whether the bill fails completely, or whether Democrats try to break off and pass pieces of the legislation separately. This is what happened after the failed 2007-2008 push for reform, when Democrats introduced the DREAM Act—which would have legalized undocumented immigrants (often referred to as "Dreamers") brought to the United States as children—in the Senate, where it failed to overcome a filibuster. Chishti says Democrats are less likely to propose such a deal. It would be an ideal outcome for Republicans: They could point to their effort to provide relief for a select group of the most vulnerable immigrants and chastise Democrats for insisting on a larger deal that helps them lock down the Latino vote. "If the Republicans decide to do that, it will be a curve ball which Democrats will have difficulty dealing with," Chishti says.

If House Republicans don't muster up the votes to pass a standalone bill, the blame for the failure of immigration reform lies squarely with them: The Democrats in the Senate, after all, passed a broad, bipartisan bill, and the Republicans in the House passed nothing despite having significant lead-time.


The lasting, nonpolitical effect of failing to pass immigration reform will be on the lives of immigrants. We know which group this will hurt most: the estimated 11 million undocumented living in the country who can't get driver's licenses, pursue higher education, get home loans, or proceed through the other channels of self-advancement that have made America a destination for the disadvantaged. Cities and municipalities with large immigrant populations—New York, Miami, Los Angeles—can't integrate them effectively into the fabric of their communities. States frustrated with inaction at the federal level will continue to pass their own measures seeking to address the problem; we should prepare ourselves for another round of states passing legislation like Arizona's SB 1070, a harsh anti-immigration measure that inspired a number of copycat bills in five other states. The Obama administration's record ramp-up in deportations will continue unabated, splitting up families and uprooting immigrants who have lived in their communities for decades.

While the issue of what to do with the 11 million undocumented tends to suck up most of the political oxygen around immigration reform, the most significant cost may come from failing to reform the legal migration system. As it stands, our immigration system blunts our competitive economic edge: It allocates an insufficient number of visas for high-skilled workers, does not provide enough low-skilled workers to meet the industry demand, and penalizes employers who try to work around the shortage by hiring undocumented people. Ultimately, it is the dysfunction of the legal system that has led to our large undocumented population. If Republicans are serious about not wanting to "be in the same boat" in 20 years—a position they've stressed over the course of the immigration debate—the best way they can ensure this is not to further feed our bloated enforcement capabilities, but to address the root of the problem.

It is hard to gauge the chances for passing an immigration bill before the current congressional calendar runs out in December, but if it fails, it is not a matter of the agenda being too full; it is entirely in the House leadership's hands, which must decide between appeasing the radicals among its base and the long-term viability of the party. One thing is clear, though: Neither the pressure from the broad coalition that supports reform is going away, nor is the need for reform. "The people who thought that this would take care of itself by attrition—the 'self-deportation' folks—that's not happening," Chishti says. "We've seen no evidence that because of impatience with Washington, people are going home."

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