How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

What's next for immigration reform, and what are the odds it will survive?

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A landmark bipartisan immigration reform bill that proposes a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants passed by a 68-32 vote in the Senate last Thursday, as was expected. But as the immigration battle moves to the House of Representatives, expectations aren't quite as high.

House Republican leadership has made a point of saying that whatever happened in the Senate, the House will move at its own pace. Meanwhile, the House has yet to come up with any kind of similar comprehensive plan to consider.

Rather, House members have been debating stand-alone immigration bills, including a strict enforcement measure similar to the kind of legislation the House was floating in the mid-2000s — the last time comprehensive immigration reform went down in flames.

Will history repeat itself? It depends, of course, on whom you ask. And it’s interesting to hear their betting odds. We’ve asked two longtime immigration policy watchers – one opposed to the Senate plan, one who supports it – for their insight on what’s next, what would need to occur for the House to sign off on comprehensive reform, and what the odds are of a such a bill landing on President Obama’s desk in the foreseeable future:

The "nay" vote: Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank that advocates for tighter immigration restrictions. His odds are the lowest, not surprisingly, but he's not saying it can't happen.

M-A: So what's next? What needs to happen in the House if immigration reform is going to move forward?

Krikorian: The House would have to pass some kind of immigration bill that they would take to conference committee with the Senate. In other words, the House and Senate have to agree on some common version of a bill, and then pass that exact identical version, which is what then gets sent to the president.

There is no question that the House will not pass the Senate bill. That's out of the question. The issue is, will they pass something more targeted that the Speaker of the House then takes to the conference committee? And then what do they do?

The danger that a lot of people see is that Speaker John Boehner will just take the Senate bill and stick it into the shell of the House bill and then pass the legislation, with all the Democrats in the House voting for it, and a couple of dozen Republicans. And that's why there has been so much pressure on him to say that he won’t bring something to the floor for a vote unless the majority of Republicans already support it.

M-A: How realistic is that scenario? The House doesn’t yet have anything similar to the Senate bill to vote on.  

Krikorian: It’s not likely, but it could still happen if the House passes even a targeted bill on immigration that Boehner could then say is the counterpart to the Senate bill.

In other words, it doesn’t have to be the same bill from the Senate. As long as it has something to do with immigration, he can say, okay, this is the one we are going to take into conference committee with the Senate bill.

That is the fear that immigration hawks have, that if they pass anything, even an enforcement-only bill, that Speaker Boehner could take it into conference, erase everything that is in it, and just stick the Senate bill into the shell of the House bill. And he has the power to do that, it’s just that he would forfeit his position as Speaker, almost certainly, if he did that.

M-A: Okay, say something like that happens and it hits the House floor. Then what?

Krikorian: Well, all the Democrats would vote for it except maybe two or three, and if he got a couple of dozen Republicans to vote for it, then it could pass. And there are enough either pro-corporate Republicans, or ideological libertarians like Paul Ryan who don’t believe in national borders, that it could pass if that happened. That's why the immigration skeptics are pressuring Boehner not to bring anything to a vote that would come from conference committee, and in fact, preferably not even to go into a conference committee at all. So in some sense, the fate of this legislation now rests almost entirely on John Boehner’s shoulders.

M-A: If you were a betting man, what would you say are the chances are of an immigration reform package making it to the president’s desk?

Krikorian: Very low. I’m not sure how you say odds, but if there is a five percent chance that it would reach the president’s desk this year, that is a lot.

The "yea" vote: Frank Sharry is founder and executive director of America's Voice, a Washington, D.C. organization that advocates for more inclusive immigration policies. Immigration reform still stands a fair chance, he thinks, but it's not a done deal.

M-A: So what’s next? What needs to happen in the House if immigration reform is going to move forward?

Sharry: The House of Representatives has to figure out how to move forward, and there is going to be tremendous pressure on Speaker Boehner and the House leadership. Because if they don’t move forward, if they block reform, they are going to do tremendous damage to the Republican brand, which is already tarnished and viewed by many Latinos as anti-immigrant and anti-Latino, and many people doubt that the institution can function, so it'll be a real challenge for them.

They are going to have to stand up to a vocal group of anti-immigrant House members, work with Democrats on a bipartisan basis, and figure out how to pass a bill or get into what they call a conference, where the House passes something and then the Senate and the House try to come up with a final version.

M-A: How realistic is it that the House will come up with some kind of final version?

Sharry: The good news is that right now, there is a bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives that supports an immigration reform bill with a path to citizenship. The bad news for Speaker Boehner is that it's the vast majority of Democrats and includes a minority of Republicans. Republicans tend to like to pass bills that enjoy majority support from Republicans, the so-called Hastert rule.

So I think Speaker Boehner is going to ultimately face a choice. He either passes reform with a majority of Democrats or he blocks reform and hurts the GOP’s reputation with Latino and immigrant voters. And I think that choice is coming up in the next two or three months.

M-A: You have some House Republicans who are concerned with the party’s long-term prospects and securing Latino support, others who are concerned with keeping the support of their constituents. How might this play out?

Sharry: We are seeing the House will probably break into three discernible factions: The people who want to pass reform, maybe 40 or 50 who are strongly for reform; then there are the really strong opponents, maybe 50 or 60; and then a big group that understands that reform should pass with Republicans sharing credit, in order to modernize the party and make it more attractive to Latinos and other minorities.

But they are also afraid, looking over their shoulder at potential primary challenges. We call that third group the “vote no, pray yes” caucus. And that is going to be the group that may end up voting against a bill, but may allow Speaker Boehner to move forward with a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans and still keep his job.

That is going to be the dynamic. It will be very hard to observe, but there is going to be a question: Whether there is going to be permission from Republicans who actually vote no for the Republicans to move forward for the good of the party in the long term.

M-A: If you were a betting man, what would you say are the chances are of an immigration reform package making it to the president’s desk?

Sharry: I think it’s better than 50-50. Look, the last election showed Republicans that a whites-only electoral strategy is doomed in a diversifying America. The Obama coalition represents the future of American politics. Now, the good news for the GOP is that they were very competitive with Latino voters just nine years ago, when George W. Bush won a number of swing states and he won over 40 percent of the Latino vote. So it’s not like Republicans can’t be competitive. They can be.

But Bush, famously, was for immigration reform and he was persistent in his outreach. I think the GOP needs to get on the right side of the immigration reform issue and kind of reopen diplomatic relations with the vast majority of Latinos who are voting Democratic now, but many of whom are open to voting to Republican as long as the hostility toward them goes away. And immigration reform has become that litmus test issue.

How soon might the fate of the 2013 immigration reform effort be decided? President Obama wants for the House to vote on a reform plan before its August recess. But Sharry and others warn that, realistically, the House debate could stretch well into the fall.

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