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A Clash of Conventional Wisdom on Immigration Reform

Today’s Politico story on the expected slow death of immigration reform in the House is getting a lot of attention. Anti-immigration conservatives have been complaining that the conventional wisdom is that bipartisan immigration reform will pass. The Washington Examiner reports on a Monday meeting of House immigration reform opponents, who are “worried that immigration reform is inevitable,” according to one member of the group. “We believe we’re paddling upstream against a bipartisan current.”

The purpose of the Politico story, on the other hand, is to reverse the conventional wisdom. What’s interesting about the two stories is that they depict the anti-immigration reform caucus as being of two minds, because they are the source of the doom-and-gloom fatalists and confident triumphalists simultaneously. They are, of course, not necessarily the same legislators, but they also don’t seem to be talking to each other. While they complain to the Examiner that immigration reform may be inevitable, here’s how Politico reports their mindset:

In private conversations, top Republicans on Capitol Hill now predict comprehensive immigration reform will die a slow, months-long death in the House. Like with background checks for gun buyers, the conventional wisdom that the party would never kill immigration reform, and risk further alienating Hispanic voters, was always wrong — and ignored the reality that most House Republicans are white conservatives representing mostly white districts.

These members, and the vast majority of their voters, couldn’t care less whether Marco Rubio, Bill O’Reilly and Karl Rove say this is smart politics and policy.

Republican leaders will huddle with their members Wednesday afternoon to plot their public strategy. But after holding countless listening sessions, it is clear to these leaders that getting even smaller, popular pieces of reform will be a tough sell. The House plans a piecemeal approach: a border-security bill this month, maybe one or two items a month in the fall.

The weakness of a piecemeal approach is that the United States has both an illegal immigration problem and a legal immigration problem. There are numerous security concerns along the border and with regard to visa overstayers to support those who argue for a secure border and a functioning verification program. But the market (that thing to which Republicans often attribute wisdom) wants more immigrant labor, and those laborers quite reasonably want at least a path to citizenship.

The reason border hawks sense bipartisan momentum for immigration reform is because such momentum exists, and it exists for a logical reason: Republicans tend to focus on fixing one half of the system while Democrats focus on the other. Neither party will vote for a final bill that excludes (or waters down) its priorities. We currently have divided government: one house of Congress is controlled by the GOP, the other by the Democrats. Hence, a bipartisan bill is the only one that could conceivably get through both chambers.

But the Politico story hits the nail on the head as to why this seemingly logical way of looking at the reform effort is flawed: the two parties may often seem to be uniform ideological vehicles, but they are still made up of politicians representing certain geographical districts of the country. It’s less about conservatives versus liberals, then, and more about the reality of congressional electoral politics.

And while that presents certain obstacles to passing reform, those politicians broadly believe it presents certain opportunities as well. The respective party leaderships say that nothing that ignores their red line demand will pass, but members of Congress are itching to test their resolve on that front. Today the Wall Street Journal editorializes that fixing part of the immigration system is better than fixing none of it. If Democrats threaten to vote against anything that isn’t the Senate bill, “Let them,” the Journal argues:

If Silicon Valley Democrats want to vote against high-tech visas, that’s their choice. If the Hispanic caucus wants to vote down the Dream Act and more farm workers, then so be it. Democrats can then take responsibility if these measures fail.

The Journal is right about the virtues of the Dream Act and more visas for industries that need workers with certain skills. But Democrats no doubt would be happy to play this game. Harry Reid doesn’t have to let a House bill see the light of day in the Senate, especially because the Senate already passed its version of immigration reform–with major Republican votes.

Thus Republicans would certainly take the blame for the failure of immigration reform. The media will duly play along to paint the GOP as not just obstructionist and uncooperative but racist. It’s a PR battle that the GOP will almost certainly lose, even if that’s unfair: Democrats’ unwillingness to take border enforcement seriously enough to get Republican votes would unnecessarily contribute to the failure of the reform effort. But it seems fairly clear that, ultimately, only a comprehensive bill can clear Congress.


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