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How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Why immigration reform is unlikely this year

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Since before the beginning of this year, there was talk of how the political momentum from the November election would influence the immigration reform debate in 2013.

Many predicted that demographic changes in the electorate that helped President Barack Obama win a second term — with black, Latino and Asian American voters overwhelming supporting him — would be enough to make Republican lawmakers more amenable to an immigration overhaul than in the mid-2000s.

Until not long ago, things looked promising for immigration reform supporters. The Senate approved a comprehensive immigration bill in June with a heavy border security component, but also with a path to citizenship for people living in the country illegally. 

But it hasn't moved beyond that. House GOP leaders have said they won't consider the Senate package, preferring to move ahead piecemeal with individual bills. A promised comprehensive House bill from a bipartisan group of lawmakers has yet to materialize and may not until fall.

Has the 2013 immigration reform effort hit the end of the road? UC Riverside's Karthick Ramakrishnan is a political scientist and expert on immigration policy and politics. Earlier this year, he asked: "Is this finally the year that Congress reforms U.S. immigration policy?" It would seem so, he concluded then. But he's thinking now it might take a while longer for the conditions to be right. Here he explains why.

M-A: Much was made of the potential for immigration reform earlier this year, when the lessons from the November election were still fresh. But things are shaping up differently in Congress. Why? Was there something we didn't account for?

Ramakrishnan: The policy conditions for immigration reform are very favorable, as I wrote in February this year, including not only recent experiences with net-zero migration from Mexico, but also the likelihood that future migration from Mexico is widely expected to be lower than in the past, given changes in Mexico's fertility and economy. The big question, however, has been whether the political conditions are favorable.

And on this question, what I wrote in February still holds true today. While there may be incentives for national Republican leaders to adopt a more moderate stance on immigration on the way to winning the presidency, House Republicans face a different set of calculations related to whether they hold onto their seats in the face of conservative primary challengers.

These are local concerns and dynamics, not national ones. You will likely see some of those concerns play out in August, as members go home to their districts and face their constituents.

M-A: You wrote recently that it looks like comprehensive immigration reform may not happen until 2015. Why do you think it will stalemate this year – and why is 2015 a better target? Even then, could a path to citizenship pass muster?

Ramakrishnan: Chances are high that Republican House members will get significant pushback from conservatives in their district this August. They might also hear from pro-immigration constituents, but many legislators will be risk-averse, worrying about losing existing voters even as they hope to expand their base.

So, it is unlikely that House Republicans will vote for a pathway to citizenship before their 2014 primary elections. There is a window of opportunity for immigration reform between the 2014 primary and general elections, but even then, House Republicans may worry about rocking the boat before the general election.

Why might things look better in the next Congress (2015 or 2016)? First, there is a slight chance that Democrats might take control of the House. Even if they don't, Republican presidential hopefuls will have a much bigger national platform in two years. Right now, the only national leader in the Republican Party is House Speaker John Boehner, and he cannot come out strongly in favor of a pathway to citizenship, given pressure from his caucus members.

There is no established leadership now that can try to counter-balance that pressure on Boehner, and give him more latitude for action. That will likely change in 2016, as most of the leading candidates for the presidency in 2016 have signaled support for a pathway to citizenship.

House members will also face a more diverse electorate in 2016 than in 2014, since voter turnout among racial minorities tends to be disproportionately lower in midterm elections than in Presidential elections.

M-A: You've mentioned that the recent resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano could further slow things down in Congress this year. Why?

Ramakrishnan: On the one hand, Napolitano's resignation allows the Obama administration to present a new face to Congress, especially when it comes to enforcement (although under Napolitano, the administration already had stepped up its spending and activity on enforcement).

Confirming a new nominee will raise new questions about future enforcement that the Senate bill seem to have settled, and it will give more opportunities for opponents of immigration reform to raise questions about the efficacy of border enforcement. 

M-A: The House group working on a comprehensive bill still hopes to introduce something, most likely in the fall. GOP lawmakers are also floating limited bills focused on enforcement and a possible limited legalization for younger immigrants. Might any of these piecemeal approaches have success?

Ramakrishnan: The piecemeal approach may work on some matters, such as the DREAM Act. But the experiences from 2006 and 2007 are not encouraging.

Then, as today, comprehensive immigration reform failed, and efforts to salvage the DREAM Act did not succeed. Also, some Republicans are talking about having a pathway to legalization without citizenship. Democrats risk facing a dispirited, and perhaps even angry, base if they forgo a roadmap to citizenship. Some might even argue that an executive solution (perhaps extending deferred action beyond young immigrants) would be preferable to writing into legislation a process of legalization that creates a permanent new underclass of non-citizens.

M-A: So is it time to stop holding our breath? Can we say with any certainty that immigration reform this year is dead?

Ramakrishnan: Immigration reform is not dead this year, but it is certainly on life support. Much will depend on what happens in August, as House Republicans go back to their districts and hear from constituents, for or against the bill. If comprehensive reform is going to happen in this Congress, my sense is that it will happen after the 2014 primaries, not before.

Meanwhile, supporters of a comprehensive overhaul this year are pushing on, hoping to sway House members when they return to their districts in August. A vote on any immigration bill isn't expected until after lawmakers return in September.

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