2013 Immigration Reform: Another Casualty Of Government Shutdown?

on October 10 2013 4:12 PM
Immigration Protest_Oct8
Members of congress calling for comprehensive immigration reform stand in unison before they were detained by police in front of the U.S. Capital Building in Washington on Oct. 8, 2013. Reuters/Jason Reed

Before House Democrats released their comprehensive immigration reform bill last week, they, along with pro-immigration reform advocates, promised to increase pressure on House Republicans to act. But Congress is focused on other matters, with a possible U.S. sovereign default coming in a matter of days, and reforming immigration laws has lost the urgency it had some weeks ago.  

At the moment, it appears that a 2013 immigration reform bill has become another casualty of the government shutdown, now in its 10th day, and a debt limit that must be raised by Oct. 17. However, in order to keep the issue alive, advocates of reform are engaging in what they call campaigns of civil disobedience across the country.

The latest was a march on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, when eight lawmakers and more than 200 activists were arrested while protesting Congress' inability to pass immigration reform. Supporters of the overhaul, like America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry, have called on pro-reform House Republicans who were present at the rally to turn rhetoric into action.

“Lending support at rallies and delivering speeches are important measures of support,” Sharry said in a statement, “but only if followed and complemented by taking real action and expending real political capital.” 

The organization's deputy director, Lynn Tramonte, said on Thursday it would be shameful if Congress spent the rest of the session trying to figure out how to pay the nation's bills.

“I think we’re encouraged that the House leadership continue to say they want to do something this year on immigration,” she said. “We’re still waiting to see proposals. ... I want to see what the policy details are as far as the outlines they’ve been talking about.”

But opponents of reform -- at least the kind envisioned by Democrats, that is, one that includes a path to citizenship for the undocumented 11 million -- said the prospects of a bill leaving the House have been dead for some time now. Not because Americans and even opponents don’t want reform, but because there was too much optimism that a bill including what they call “amnesty” for the undocumented could pass.

“Passing immigration reform (...) is something we absolutely need to do, but tying it to amnesty makes it almost impossible to get through the House,” said Dan Holler, communication director at Heritage Action, the political arm of conservative think tank Heritage Foundation.

“The problem with the debate in Washington has been folks are insistent -- from the president to the Democrats in the Senate and including some Republicans -- that amnesty must be part of any immigration reform efforts. That’s the wrong way to go.”

Holler said he is confident that if a path to citizenship is taken out of the equation, an overhaul of the legal immigration system could be passed into law. 

“So until the president is willing to take that off the table, we are going to be in this situation where there won’t be movement,” Holler said, adding that details matter in order to attract more conservatives to the cause of reform. “The whole push for immigration reform is dead because President Obama’s insistence on passing amnesty. That’s what killed immigration reform,” he said.

Polls show that more than 60 percent of Americans would support legislation that provides a legal pathway to citizenship for those without papers who are already in America. Numbers like these are probably why some advocates aren’t ready to call it quits just yet. For them, there is power in numbers -- both in the polls and in the rallies.

Take for instance Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who was among the lawmakers arrested at the D.C. rally. Rangel told International Business Times on Tuesday that immigration reform not only brings people out of the shadows, which Rangel said “is a moral thing to do,” but that “it raises revenue” as well, as the Congressional Budget Office stated, by expanding the taxpayer base. 

Rangel represents New York’s 13th district, which includes neighborhoods with a sizable Latino population such as Harlem, Spanish Harlem and Washington Heights.

“Quite frankly, I felt good that I was there” at the rally, Rangel said. “It’s hard to explain to my wife that I never intended to go to jail.  (...) I knew what was going on but I didn’t come to the Capitol that day to get arrested. I came to support.”

Rangel is optimistic the government will reopen soon and cooler heads will prevail on the budget matters, at which point Congress could focus its attention elsewhere. “I hope after taking a deep breath we can go back to immigration reform,” he said. At that point, Rangel hopes, business organizations and others will further increase the pressure to demand more from Congress on immigration.

Jon Feere, a legal policy analyst at Center For Immigration Studies, thinks it is the intention of lawmakers in Congress to get to reform as quickly as possible, especially because they dont want to deal with the issue during an election year next year.

“The longer this debate over budgets and the government shutdown goes on the less time there is for a debate on an immigration bill,” Feere said. “They know the issue is way too hot to have a debate about it in 2014, and many members of Congress, who are up for re-election, fully understand that doubling legal immigration at time when tens of millions of Americans are out of work is not so popular with the voters.”

If it is not this year, then next year also gives advocates the advantage, Tramonte said, “because the threat of 2014 losses is going to be staring them in the face. ... For the Republicans, the longer they let this hang out there the uglier they look to the Latino community and the harder it gets for them to come back from the brink of the demographic cliff.”

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