How immigration reform died
|How immigration reform died - Obama|
President Barack Obama paused for what felt like an eternity to the immigration reform activists seated around the Roosevelt Room.
Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, had just explained why she declared him the “deporter in chief” in a speech in early March. Obama, who was infuriated when he first heard Murguia’s remarks weeks earlier, sat in silence, trying to keep his anger in check, according to advocates in attendance.
When Obama finally spoke, he scolded them. The story was now about infighting between Obama and activists rather than the House Republicans refusing to take up a bill. “If you take the pressure off of them and put it on me, you’ll guarantee that there is no legislation,” he warned.
The frustrations that boiled over three months ago during the White House meeting were years in the making, but were exacerbated by the growing realization that an outcome once thought to be inevitable increasingly looked impossible.
The best chance in three decades to rewrite immigration laws has slipped away just one year after the Senate garnered 68 votes for sweeping reform of the system, 20 months after strong Hispanic turnout for Democrats in the 2012 election sparked a GOP panic, and five years after Obama promised to act.
Immigration reform’s slow but steady failure exposes how an ideologically diverse and powerful network of supporters couldn’t bend the one group that mattered: House Republicans. Proponents turned their attention late to the House because of a longer-than-expected Senate debate, and once they did, the GOP’s political will had faded and hard-liners made inroads with newer lawmakers that were difficult to reverse, according to interviews with several dozen key participants on both sides of the battle.
Last summer, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) privately told the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference that if reformers won the August recess, then Republicans would move a bill in the fall. But the Syria crisis, the government shutdown and the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov consumed attention through the end of 2013. By the time Boehner released a set of immigration principles in January, Republicans saw little short-term benefit to tackling a divisive issue just as their midterm election prospects were strengthening.
As recently as this month, however, there was more movement in the House than previously known. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) had been quietly shopping a PowerPoint presentation of a border enforcement and legalization bill to his colleagues and secured soft commitments from at least 120 Republicans, according to multiple sources familiar with the process.
But then Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lost his Republican primary election. And young children from Central America crossed illegally over the southwestern border in record numbers. Those two unforeseen events killed any remaining chance for action this year.
For their part, reformers underestimated how impervious most House Republicans would be to persuasion from evangelicals, law enforcement and big business, and how the GOP’s animus toward Obama over health care and executive actions would bleed into immigration reform.
“It’s one of the most frustrating moments that I’ve had,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a member of the Senate Gang of Eight. “The Senate passage was historic, it was real momentum and to see it totally find itself in a dark hole in the House of Representatives is incredibly disappointing not only to me personally but to millions of people across the country.”
Attention will soon turn to how Obama uses his executive authority to provide relief for undocumented immigrants. It will be the next test in the strained relationship between the president and his progressive allies, who are demanding another round of administrative actions.
Obama tried in that tense March session to convince the advocates that he understood their fight. But the president’s attempt to highlight his commitment to comprehensive reform going all the way back to his Senate days only incensed the group, which interpreted his remark as a knock on their own dedication to the cause.
“We’ve been working on this issue long before you got to the White House,” Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, told Obama. “And we will be working on it long after you leave, if necessary.”
The strong bipartisan vote for the Senate bill exactly one year ago Friday was hard, at first, for the House to ignore, even among the leaders who said they wouldn’t take cues from the upper chamber.
Within weeks, Boehner issued a challenge to a pro-reform group.
Nearly all House Republican leaders blocked off time to meet with about 30 members of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference in Cantor’s conference room in the Capitol. Starting with Boehner, each lawmaker went around the table to stress the need to pass immigration reform.
According to two attendees, Boehner told the assembled advocates to go out and win August.
“He promised us in that meeting that if we can just make the August recess of 2013 go smoothly and not be a riot around the country, that we would be able to get back after the August recess,” recalled Robert Gittelson, vice president of governmental affairs for the NHCLC.
At one point, the Rev. Daniel de Leon, a California pastor, asked House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte about family reunification — a critical issue for religious communities. The normally reserved Virginia Republican — whom some advocates viewed as an obstacle to reform and who oversees immigration legislation in his committee — began to cry and choked up completely, two people inside the room recalled.
About a minute later, Goodlatte regained his composure. Apologizing for the abrupt tears, the former immigration attorney discussed how the issue is a deeply personal one: His wife Maryellen’s parents were first-generation immigrants from Ireland, he explained, and throughout his legal career, Goodlatte helped immigrants from more than 70 nations come to the United States.
Reformers largely won the August recess — there was no tea party-inspired revolt pressuring congressmen to oppose reform when they returned to Washington.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) was mocked for hosting a rally against immigration reform in Richmond, Va., near Cantor’s district that drew only about 50 people. Images of the congressman standing alone under a gazebo at a public park made the opposition look weak, even a bit embarrassing.
But that still didn’t convince House Republicans to act.
In January, King held a key piece of paper in his jacket pocket during the immigration discussion at the House GOP retreat in Cambridge, Md.
Scribbled on it was a list of about 50 names of fellow House Republicans that King considered allies, having talked personally to each of them and urged them to speak out against immigration reform. Now, he would need every one of them as the GOP leadership introduced principles that included legalization for most undocumented immigrants.
Many of the 50 had cycled through a series of meetings that King and Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) began in February 2013, when King became convinced that an overhaul was coming.
“I said, ‘I’m going to fight it all the way. And I’m going to die on the hill if that’s gonna happen,’” King recalled in a recent interview. “That’s what I said: ‘I’m going to die on the hill.’ And so that’s why I began to mobilize.”
The reason for the early meetings was simple: Nearly half of House Republicans were either freshmen or sophomores who weren’t around for the last major immigration fight in 2007. With some key exceptions, these lawmakers were blank slates on immigration policy.
“The new Republicans in the House and Senate — you know how their mind worked?” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a key senator involved in the effort. “It was, ‘We need to end the lawlessness at the border and build a fence but I love immigrants and I really think we should welcome immigrants and we need more immigrants.’”
“Well, that sounds good on the campaign trail, but few of them had actually read data about we admit a million on a path to citizenship every year, we have 600,000 guest workers in addition every year,” Sessions continued. “Few of them had asked themselves, in a time of high unemployment and slow growth, you want to increase the number?”