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Republicans Want to Tackle Immigration Reform in the Next Congress? Don’t Believe the Hype

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Establishment Republicans Engage in Happy Talk While Hardliners Dominate 

As the country contemplates a Congress controlled by the GOP, there is some talk – from the likes of Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Former Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney and Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Preibus – that the Republican Congress will enact immigration reform legislation prior to 2016.  Don’t hold your breath.

As we’ve noted, major progress on immigration reform during the next two years will come.  But Americans are no longer waiting for Congress.  The reforms will come from the Oval Office and from states and localities throughout the country.  These agents of reform are bypassing a Congress that won’t do its job to enable millions of undocumented immigrants to work, drive, study and travel legally.   Call it the progressive approach to piecemeal immigration reform.  Call it the stepping stones to much-needed comprehensive immigration reform.  Call it the best way forward for now – at least until Congress changes hands.

So why the happy talk from Republicans?  Here’s our assessment:

The GOP is setting up the blame-game ahead of executive action on immigration

Republicans are positioning themselves to blame President Obama’s executive action on immigration for scuttling the chances to pass immigration reform legislation.  They want to attack impending executive action from a variety of fronts, including by claiming that executive action “poisoned the well” and destroyed the chances for a lasting legislation solution.  This is just more of the same rhetorical blame-shifting from Republicans, who were perpetually just about to address immigration these past two years, but couldn’t get there because, of course, Obama. 

While Mitt Romney generated a round of attention this weekend for his assessment made on “Fox News Sunday” that a Republican-controlled Senate would pass immigration reform legislation, the more telling remarks on Fox this weekend came in an op-ed posted on the Fox News website by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL).  He highlighted how Republicans are prepared to pull out all the stops to fight executive action on immigration.  After an election season the GOP has spent running on immigrant-bashing and fear-mongering, and following a congressional session in which the House refused to even vote on the Senate’s immigration bill, the initiative in the GOP is clearly with the Jeff Sessions/Ted Cruz/Steve King wing.  A small number of establishment Republicans who want to address reform talk a good game, but they have proven to be no match for the nativists in the GOP.  Imagine: Once President Obama takes executive action on immigration by the end of the year, the anti-immigrant wing will no longer be a wing.  Their views will dominate and define the entire GOP.

A Republican-controlled Congress will not pass immigration reform that legalizes the 11 million undocumented immigrants – even if some in the GOP want to do so 

The only immigration reform legislation that could count on enough Democratic support to overcome the “Hell No” caucus in the GOP would be a package that includes legal status, along with a meaningful chance at eventual citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America.  The idea of a Republican-controlled Congress working with Democrats to do just that has been proven to be a non-starter in the House in this Congress.  The idea of a new Republican-controlled Congress passing such a package on its own, without Democratic votes, is pure folly.  There’s nowhere near enough support for it.

At best, Republicans could pass immigration measures that ramp up record levels of enforcement to ever-higher levels and perhaps add some temporary workers visas as sweeteners for the business community.  On the essential question of what to do with 11 million undocumented immigrants in the nation, what’s predictable is more enforcement, more fences, more police stops, more detention, more deportations, more young people being denied futures and more families being separated.   And this is the best-case scenario of a Republican-controlled Congress.   

Much more likely is that a Republican Congress follows Senator Sessions, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Steve King (R-IA).  After all, the most recent immigration votes by the GOP in this Congress have been written by them and given to them.  The measures focus on denying a fair shot at protection for kids fleeing violence in Central America, stripping DACA from Dreamers, and preventing future executive action.  What’s predictable going forward is that they will continue to drive the agenda.  Happy talk about immigration reform will quickly morph into a full-out assault on executive actions that provide protections to deeply-rooted immigrants, combined with a full-out attempt to increase enforcement and deportations.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “In this Congress, the Republican Party squandered an historic opportunity to get right on immigration reform and get right with the changing American electorate.  In the coming Congress, the Republican Party will fight tooth and nail to keep immigrants from living with dignity in America and to put them in detention and deportation proceedings.  This will cement their brand as the anti-Latino, anti-immigrant party as we head into 2016.  We can’t help but wonder what the RNC’s autopsy will say about immigration reform in 2017.”