Little Time Left For Immigration Changes

Sunday, 3 Nov 2013, 8:00:00 AM

Tom Elias

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

When the history of this fall’s partial government shutdown and debt limit battle is written, it may well list as one prime victim the pathway to citizenship long sought by undocumented immigrants.

That’s because despite President Obama’s loud talk about pressing forward with his agenda on changes to the nation’s immigration rules, time grows short.

Even if there were many months before the 2014 election season, the fate of immigration changes giving unauthorized immigrants some hope of eventually becoming citizens and improving the legal status of young immigrants often called “Dreamers” would be uncertain.

That’s because Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have been reluctant for many months even to allow a vote on the compromise comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate last June, one that would greatly beef up border security at the same time it eases life and creates new hopes for the undocumented.

“We’re committed to moving forward on step-by-step comprehensive reforms,” a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said in an oxymoron of an email.

But Republicans have not begun to act on even one bill dealing with any substantial aspect of immigration since the Senate passed its proposal and it moved to the House, where it has been trapped in committee ever since. The only one discussed in detail may be filed by San Diego County’s Darrell Issa, who says he wants to offer current unauthorized immigrants six years of legal residency – but no path to citizenship.

Conservative Republicans have threatened to oust Boehner as speaker if he allows a floor vote on the Senate measure. They know it would likely pass in its present form with votes from almost all 201 Democrats in the House and a few Republicans acting out of fear that if they voted “no,” their reelections could be threatened by the rising number of Latinos in their home districts.

If the Senate bill never gets a floor vote, those GOP Congress members can say they favored the pathway to citizenship many conservatives describe as “amnesty” when they run next fall, even if they never voted for it. A classic example might be Jeff Denham, whose Modesto-centered district now is more than 42 percent Hispanic. Denham days ago became the lone Republican to sign onto the House Democratic version of the Senate’s bill.

Long before Boehner allowed the floor vote where Democrats and some Republicans ended the fall government shutdown and the threat of national default, GOP back-benchers warned they would fire him if he did anything like that with immigration. The Tea Party-oriented far right faction that actually controls the House Republican Caucus let him allow one floor vote; he could be an ex-Speaker and top lieutenant Eric Cantor an ex-majority leader if they do it on this issue.

So it’s unrealistic to expect any wide-ranging House action this fall, even if some in Congress create smaller bills to deal with specific immigration questions.

But next year will bring an election season, often a time of paralysis because most politicians fear making controversial votes that might remain fresh in voters’ memory at ballot time.

It would take passage of five or six specific-issue bills by the House to generate a House-Senate conference committee that might craft something comprehensible by combining a House mishmash with the Senate bill. Not likely to happen.

Which means it is still unclear what the majority of House Republicans have in mind for the 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in this country, about one-fourth of them in California.

It is clear, though, that only about two months remain this year, a time that will be filled with congressional recesses for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. That leaves precious little time for action, in combination with a House majority that’s demonstrated it is reluctant to move at all.

So it's most likely the outcome of this year’s long-running immigration debate will be nothing. Don't expect anything much next year, either. Which will probably push the entire issue over into 2015, when Congress might have a substantially different makeup, especially if Latino voters go to the polls to vent their frustration over all this.

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