With control of the U.S. House of Representatives switching to the Republican Party, the future of a comprehensive approach to immigration reform is now in greater doubt. And Democrats—unable to put forward a proposal that could muster the necessary support to right our broken immigration system—will take a back seat to the immigration plans of the new House leadership.
One of the first orders of business when the new Congress convenes in January will be the designation of new committee chairpersons. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) is out as the House immigration subcommittee chairperson, and Rep. Steve King (R-IA) will likely take the gavel. As for the full Judiciary Committee, it will likely be led by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). This means a new approach for immigration-related issues. And in essence, going back to the drawing board on many of the core concerns.
The Democrats had been working on comprehensive immigration reform that revolved around four pillars originally put forward by Senators Schumer (D-NY) and Graham (R-SC) in March. (That is before Sen. Graham withdrew his support a few months later.) The approach included: requiring biometric Social Security cards; beefing up border security; creating a system for admitting temporary workers; and implementing a path for the legalization of certain undocumented immigrants. And President Obama asserted that the chance for reform was close, noting last week: “Right now on immigration reform, we’re eight votes short or 10 votes short.”
But if the Pledge to America—the Republicans’ legislative agenda unveiled in September—is any indication, the new House leadership’s immigration focus will be on issues of border enforcement, immigration law enforcement and strengthening visa security. Plans do not include any focus on creating a path toward legalization of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the shadows. Instead, the 21-page pledge indirectly calls for supporting legislation such as Arizona’s SB 1070 with its call to “reaffirm the authority of state and local law enforcement to assist in the enforcement of all federal immigration laws.”
(On a side, this is welcome news to the Secretary of State-elect of Kansas, Kris Kobach, who has made a name for himself by drafting anti-immigrant laws around the country including SB 1070, and is now moving from law professor to elected office.)
As chairperson, Mr. King favors a piecemeal approach to reforming immigration, with, as similar to the Pledge to America, an initial focus on strictly border security. He also recently called for re-interpreting the 14th Amendment—the amendment that gave all African-Americans citizenship in 1868—in order to end what he termed the “‘anchor baby’ industry” where undocumented immigrants have children “so that they can have uninhibited access to taxpayer funded benefits and to citizenship for as many family members as possible.” The problem here: there is no such industry and this type of rhetoric only serves to spark further divisions in a society that is desperately looking for common ground.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the likely new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has also said that he wants to first focus on border security. But with immigration being a caucus-wide issue, there is no doubt that Rep. John Boehner, as the soon-to-be Speaker of the House, will also play a large role in shaping the House’s direction on the issue.
Either way, after picking up at least 61 seats, the Republican Party will take control of the House with a focus on putting forward legislation that focuses on the economy and job creation. Immigration will not be one of the immediate top priorities. And with the Senate still controlled by the Democratic Party, finding compromise in the next two years will be that much more difficult especially as the presidential jockeying will begin even earlier than in previous races. Unfortunately, in this political environment, working together and compromising on issues like immigration reform do not bode well for each party’s desire to grandstand on core electoral concerns.
The best short-term chance for fixing elements of our immigration system is likely to come in the next month. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (re-elected by 5 percentage points) has pledged to bring up the Dream Act in the lame-duck session of Congress before it adjourns for the year. Yes, his statement may have been part of his bid to rally Latino support for his tight re-election race, but he has now committed to the issue. The Dream Act should be passed and hopefully Senators from both parties are willing to support it now that the campaign is over. If passed, the conditional legal status would be granted to undocumented immigrant students who arrived before age 16, have been in the U.S. for at least five years, graduate from a U.S. high school, and complete two years of college or military service.
In our bid to compete for global jobs, the Dream Act would do the right thing in allowing motivated children to contribute as much as possible to the U.S. economy and not be punished for a situation that they didn’t create.
Now, let’s only hope that a possible rational approach to the Dream Act is carried forward in how our new Congress addresses broader immigration issues.
*Jason Marczak is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. He is senior editor of Americas Quarterly, managing editor of AmericasQuarterly.org and director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.