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This Year’s Legislative Acid Test: Immigration Rewrite

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In theory, some people are refocusing attention on Congress this month after a period of total disconnectedness that began after the last election. For them, the most astonishing thing is surely that an immigration overhaul remains on the to-do list.

The start of the new legislative year has been preoccupied with talk about unemployment benefits, Iran sanctions, restrictions on government surveillance and the completed-at-last annual budget. But behind the white noise lies this reality: Thanks to all the sky-high expectations after the 2012 results created an obvious political sweet spot, the 113th Congress is going to be remembered more than anything else as the time when immigration policy did — or did not — get revamped for the first time in a generation.

If that somehow happens after a year of fits and starts, it will likely stand not only as the historic domestic policy achievement of President Barack Obama’s second term, but also as a sign the Republican Party is returning to realpolitik.

And if the 2014 legislative effort comes up empty, it will reaffirm not only the president’s significantly shrunken legislative sway, but also the GOP’s interest in cultivating its most conservative fringes at the expense of all else.

Framed in those stark terms, it should be tough to predict that impasse is the likely outcome. That’s why advocates of a big bill, not only in the Hispanic community but also in the business world, are stoking every inkling of momentum.

All the attention remains, of course, on the House Republican leadership. It’s been there now for seven months, since 68 senators voted for a measure combining a staggering border security beef-up with creation of a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the 11.5 million immigrants in the United States illegally.

The GOP leaders all want to put this issue behind them as quickly as practical — to get their party on the right side of demographic history before the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group altogether abandons Republicans for a generation. (Mitt Romney took 27 percent of the Hispanic presidential vote last time, so there is still room for further decline.)

Word is that Speaker John A. Boehner, his three top leadership deputies and Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia will unveil a set of vaguely worded policy goals for any bill during the next fortnight. The goal is two-fold: To signal, in advance of Obama’s State of the Union address, that their team is still interested in getting a bill, and to gauge how many in their own caucus are willing to at least keep an open mind on the matter.

The timing will then put the onus on the president to somehow respond in his speech. Obama and his aides are sending unmistakable signs that this year’s address will propose dead-on-arrival legislation designed to appeal to his party’s populist base during the campaign season while he advances his agenda almost entirely through regulations and public advocacy.

But “the pen, the phone and the podium,” to use the White House’s phrase, are not sufficient to change immigration policy. A jumpstart to that effort would come from Obama telling Congress on Jan. 28 how he is ready to compromise.

Ultimately, any deal would turn on the citizenship issue. Only if it gets resolved will there be any drive to solve disagreements about border security, the treatment of guest workers and increasing the number of visas for the highly skilled — or to decide if all immigration matters should be rolled into one bill or handled piecemeal.

Obama would need to back away from his desire to make a course toward citizenship as generous as the Senate’s, and then convince plenty of House Democrats to do the same in the name of partially solving a problem that would otherwise fester for years to come. House GOP leaders would need to persuade a few dozen of their own (a majority of the majority appearing out of the question) to abandon the position that any such pathway amounts to “amnesty” or “special treatment.”

And then at least 60 senators would need to acquiesce in whatever compromise was passed by the House.

The boundaries of this middle ground are getting clear to see. They are very close to what some House GOP leaders are talking about. And, according to a report this week from the National Foundation for American Policy, the result means about half the total number of current illegal residents would eventually get on a path to citizenship.

Goodlatte is now open to giving illegal immigrants provisional legal status, then permitting those with longstanding employment or with children or spouses who are citizens to seek a “green card” through existing channels. A green card means permanent legal residency and comes with its own timetable for becoming a citizen, usually within five years.

The nonpartisan research group’s study estimates 3.5 million to 5 million people could benefit from this approach, as would another 800,000 to 1.5 million if the law is changed to provide green cards to younger undocumented immigrants who arrived as children — the group now known as Dreamers.

The next hurdle will be deciding on the most opportune moment for advancing such a compromise. It won’t come before early May, when the filing deadlines will have passed in the five states (Texas, Florida, California, Pennsylvania and Ohio) that are home to a third of the House Republicans, and the bulk of the caucus’ relative centrists.

And if more than a few of those incumbents have plausible primaries, the big House vote won’t come before the August recess.

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