Immigration Reform, Ready or Not? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Immigration Reform, Ready or Not?

Immigration Reform, Ready or Not?

By Emily Cadei

Immigration activists gather on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol during a Rally for Citizenship in Washington D.C.
SourceKen Cedeno/Corbis


The United States is both a “nation of immigrants” and a home to millions of illegal immigrants who live in the shadows. Is reconciliation possible? 

By Emily Cadei

It’s hard to think of an issue these days that’s drawn nastier debates than America’s policy toward its 11-million-plus illegal immigrants. As the dust settles from election day, there’s talk of a reform law finally moving forward in the new Republican-controlled Congress, and redemption for America’s made-by-immigrants identity. 

Not so fast. Advocates on both sides of the immigration debate say the Pollyanna-ish happy talk may be just that. In fact, many pros say the prospects of U.S. leaders passing a substantial immigration reform law ahead of 2016 are as dim as ever. 

“Everyone’s saying the right thing,” says Carlos Gutierrez, who was President George W. Bush’s commerce secretary and is now a leader of Republicans for Immigration Reform, a super PAC. While the Republican majorities in next year’s Congress “may do something piecemeal … I’m a little bit pessimistic,” Gutierrez says, and then quickly adds, “I hope I’m wrong.”

The Republicans’ 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney set tongues wagging Sunday when he told Fox News that a Republican-controlled House and Senate would pass a full-fledged immigration reform bill. He’s not the only prominent conservative who’s made such promises. Speaking in Spanish, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told Denver’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce last week that once Republicans take over Congress, they’ll be able to solve the immigration conundrum. Even House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said late last month that a Republican Congress could take on illegal immigration.

a man climbs the wall on the beach

In Tijuana, Mexico, a man climbs a fence separating Mexico from the U.S.

But then he added a big caveat — and that’s where things get messy. While Republicans celebrate their midterm victories, President Obama’s team at the White House is preparing a new executive order, to be issued by year-end, that will allow millions of illegal immigrants to stay in the United States without the threat of deportation. It would expand Obama’s 2012 order, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA), which temporarily allowed children who were illegally brought into the U.S. to stay in the country. Republicans are threatening to walk away from the immigration table if the president goes any further.

On Oct. 30, three key Republican senators who have supported past efforts to overhaul America’s immigration laws sent a letter to Obama to “strongly discourage” any executive moves. Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida warned that “unilateral action by the executive branch … would be detrimental to finding much-needed long-term policy and legislative solutions to our broken immigration system.” As McCarthy told Politico, it would “stop everything.”

Those in favor of giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship say the GOP is simply lining up another excuse for inaction.

Advocates of an immigration overhaul that would give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship say the GOP is simply lining up another excuse for inaction. “This is just more of the same rhetorical blame-shifting from Republicans, who were perpetually just about to address immigration these past two years, but couldn’t get there because, of course, Obama,” the advocacy group America’s Voice said in a statement.

They and other supporters of the White House move, which was delayed from the fall to avoid campaign season fallout, say Republicans have already showed their true colors — the Republican-controlled House blocked any action on a comprehensive bill the Senate passed. With the dynamics in that chamber little changed by the election, why should we expect anything different next year?

On that point, at least, liberals are on the same page as the opponents of any new law that would give illegal immigrants legal status. “There have been countless, countless promises made to the American public” on immigration “that were going to do all sorts of things,” says Ira Mehlman, spokesperson for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which wants to reduce the number of immigrants coming to the United States. He notes that when House Republican leaders came out with a set of reform principles, the GOP rank and file revolted. By summer, they were refusing to act on anything. 

“Clearly the leadership was forced to pull back,” says Mehlman. “That same dynamic is probably going to be there” in 2015, “especially if the president goes ahead and acts unilaterally.”

Whether an excuse or a genuine point of contention, Obama’s executive order is likely to suck the air out of the room for at least a few months.

Whether it’s an excuse or a genuine point of contention, Obama’s executive order is likely to suck the air out of the room for at least a few months, people on both sides say. Republicans will no doubt try and fight the measure, perhaps by blocking funding for the deferred action programs, Mehlman says. That doesn’t bode well for getting moving on a bill (or bills) to overhaul the system, because a comprehensive bill requires time, says Gutierrez: “If we’re going to do this now, we’re going to have to hit the ground running and this is going to have to be a top priority” for congressional Republicans.

One other point of general agreement is that the White House can only do so much on immigration. Any long-term solution will require congressional action. While supporters of comprehensive immigration reform back the president’s pending order, one advocate, who is not authorized to speak on the record, said it ultimately amounts to “tinkering around the margins.”

So if not next Congress, when can Americans expect Washington to act on immigration? Gutierrez thinks it may require a GOP takeover of the White House in 2017. “A Republican will be a good guy to get it done,” he says. “Kind of like Nixon goes to China.”

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