At a dinner gathering in Washington last week, the members of Congress in attendance were asked if they think immigration reform will pass this year. The two Democrats said yes, the six Republicans no.
The sample was small, but the vote was more revealing than you might think. The odds were correct. There’s roughly a 1-in-3 chance legislation that includes a path to citizenship for those here illegally will be enacted in 2014. And if it fails, less sweeping bills—strengthening border security, for instance—are doomed. Democrats will kill them.
What the attitude of the Republicans, all House members, reflected was the absence of fear either of voting against immigration reform or of not having the issue come to a vote at all. The notion that Senate passage in June of a bipartisan bill has put enormous pressure on House Republicans to act—well, it’s just not true.
Republicans appear more concerned about a possible backlash from voting for immigration reform—and facing a primary challenge for doing so—than from voting against it. This is a change from the anxiety about alienating Latino voters that emerged after the 2012 election. Republicans don’t expect the immigration issue to affect their prospects in next year’s midterm elections, at least in House races.
This is short-term thinking, but that’s hardly abnormal in politics. Should the Latino vote prove to be a problem for Republicans, it will come in Senate and presidential contests. In the states where Republicans hope to pick up Senate seats in 2014, however, the Latino vote is not a significant factor.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into a show of hands at a Washington dinner. But Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who relies on friendly persuasion to recruit Republicans on immigration, says there’s been a GOP “relapse” recently. After making “real” progress, Republicans have suffered “a substantial case of amnesia about the last election,” he wrote in the Huffington Post.
President Obama is partially to blame. Many Democrats believe Republican qualms on immigration reform spring from bigotry, cynicism, or extremism. In most cases, they don’t. Thus, when Obama unilaterally postpones enforcement of the employer mandate in Obamacare, he raises legitimate suspicions he might suspend enforcement of border security.
Obama is also the least-skilled president in recent memory in dealing with Congress. His attacks last week on Republicans as cold hearted and ill motivated make it less likely they’ll warm up to an immigration bill he’s endorsed. To advance reform, the less Obama says, the better.
Gutiérrez is Obama’s opposite. He invites Republicans to pro-immigration events and praises them for coming. In Bakersfield, California, last week, Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), whose parents emigrated from Portugal, backed “comprehensive” immigration reform with Gutiérrez looking on. Valadao got a standing ovation. “My whole life, I lived on a farm, so I grew up in a community surrounded by immigrants,” he said.
Rather than join Gutiérrez at a Denver rally, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) gave him a copy of an op-ed last week that appeared a few days later in the Denver Post. Coffman wrote that comprehensive reform “must show compassion to the families that have been here regardless of their immigration status.” After becoming legal residents, they “could apply for citizenship and should be treated like any other applicant,” he said.
Gutiérrez touts Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) as “my guiding light. I know I get him in trouble every time I say it.” Ryan is a longtime supporter of immigration reform, as was his mentor, the late Jack Kemp. Ryan attended a Gutiérrez event in Chicago and got several standing ovations.
Ryan’s role is critical. He is widely respected by Republican House members and has the ability to persuade them on issues. His public role is minimal. Instead, he has been meeting privately with colleagues, urging them to support a GOP version of immigration reform. “Earned legalization,” Ryan said during a Washington panel in June, “is not amnesty.”
Like Ryan, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, opposes a “special” gateway to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally. But he’s “open-minded” about other ways they could eventually become citizens, he said in a C-SPAN interview. His committee has already passed four separate immigration bills, including one to provide 500,000 visas annually for temporary farm workers.
The efforts of Gutiérrez, Ryan, and Goodlatte underscore the point that serious immigration reform is down but not out. It reminds me of tax reform in the 1980s, which seemed to have no constituency. The media repeatedly declared it dead. But it had influential advocates, and thanks to them it passed in 1986. Influential advocates are one thing immigration reform has plenty of.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.