In June, the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform by a bipartisan vote of 68-32. In doing so, the Senate took a giant step toward fixing our broken immigration system that is both a lost economic opportunity and a cost to all Americans.
Numerous studies have found that the Senate’s bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, would lead to significant economic growth as immigrants fully enter our society and economy. According to the Congressional Budget Office (“CBO”), over the next 10 years the Senate bill would increase our gross domestic product, or GDP, by 3.3 percent and would raise the wages of all Americans by a cumulative $470 billion, while creating on average 121,000 jobs each year.
As the Center for American Progress (“CAP”) noted, “The potential to add billions of dollars to our economy should in and of itself be sufficient motivation to spur the House of Representatives to act.” At a minimum, it should emphasize that “[m]aintaining the status quo is not cost neutral.”
House Democrats introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill during the federal shutdown. The bill, H.R. 15, is very similar the the Senate bill, but includes the House Homeland Security Committee’s approved border security bill in place of the Senate “border surge.” The Washington Post’s Wonkblog has a nice explanation of the bill and how it differs from the Senate version.
It seems increasingly unlikely, however, that House Republicans will vote for a pathway to citizenship in 2013, and probably not before their 2014 primary elections. Many predicted that demographic changes in the electorate that helped President Obama win a second term would be enough to make Republicans more amendable to an immigration overhaul. The Senate bill went a long way to encourage immigration reform supporters. But House GOP leaders have said they won’t consider the Senate package, and no longer plan to vote on an immigration reform bill this year.
The headlines following the introduction of H.R. 15 left little to the imagination about how many are feeling about the prospects of comprehensive immigration reform in the House: “House Democrats Introduce Immigration Bill With Little Chance Of A Vote”; “Democrats Take Aim at GOP With Long-Shot Immigration Bill”; and “House Dems Offer Immigration Bill, Fate Uncertain.” And prominent House Republicans, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, pledged to make the bill sink.
The policy conditions for immigration reform remain very favorable. Immigration reform, as noted above, would provide significant economic benefits to the United States. But perhaps more important for immigration policy is the fact that, for several years now, net migration from Mexico has fallen to zero, something that, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker has noted, has very little do do with the United States. Rather, it’s mostly thanks to Mexico and it’s growing middle class, as expressed in lower birth rates, rising earnings, and increased enforcement actions in Mexico against unauthorized migration from Central America. Thus, proponents of immigration reform can make a credible case that reform will not lead to new waves of unauthorized migration.
The big question, however, has been whether the political conditions are favorable. Republican House Speaker John Boehner does not have much control over the House, making a bipartisan effort unlikely. Further, the majority of politicians are risk-averse, worrying about losing existing voters even as they hope to expand their base. While national leaders in the Republican Party are well aware that they risk losing out on many future presidential elections if they cannot make inroads into the Latino electorate, the rank-and-file have an incentive to align themselves with the partisan base that will turn out in a primary, an electorate that typically includes only hard-core partisans.
Simply stated, the rank-and-file face a different set of calculations related to whether they hold onto their seats in the face of conservative primary challengers. The fear of primary defeats in 2014 has induced reluctance among many Republican legislatures, particularly given the current set of Republican House districts, where conservative primary challengers can defeat incumbents and still have a good chance of winning the general election. As the National Journal noted, “On every measure, Republicans today represent constituencies that lean more lopsidedly toward their party.”
There is a window of opportunity for immigration reform before attention turns to the 2014 mid-terms, but that window is quickly closing. “I think there are a lot of folks who are concerned about this issue not getting solved, and I think legitimately so,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FLA) told POLITICO. “Because I do think that every day that goes by, it makes it more and more difficult.”
One thing, though, is certain. If immigration reform fails in the House, it will be because House Leadership refused to bring it up for a vote. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has said that he will follow the so-called “Hastert Rule” on immigration – that is, he will not allow a vote on a bill until a majority of Republicans support the bill. The Hastert Rule is not a rule; in this case, as in most cases, it is merely an excuse for inaction. H.R. 15 has the support of 185 Democratic members, and in a sign that Republicans are growing frustrated with House Leadership’s delay tactics, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) has recently announced he will support the Democrats’ plan.
While Democrats will need more Republican support to reach 218 votes, the 28 House Republicans that have already come out in favor of a path to citizenship gave Denham hope that more in his party would join him. “I’m the first Republican,” Denham said in an interview with the Washington Post. “I expect more to come on board.” So far, just one other Republican has.
Meanwhile, time is quickly running out.
While pushing Congress to act, President Obama voiced pessimism about the prospects for reform.
“Now, obviously, just because something is smart and fair and good for the economy and fiscally responsible and supported by business and labor – and the evangelical community and many Democrats and many Republicans, that does not mean that it will actually get done. This is Washington, after all,” he said.
The bruising fight over the Affordable Care Act and the government shutdown make it highly unlikely that the House will take action on immigration this year. And with the mid-term congressional elections next year, lawmakers may be determined to avoid divisive issues like immigration.