The U.S. House of Representatives snuck out of town last week with little fanfare, and rightly so: America’s lower body had just managed to squander another work period without any movement on immigration reform. The only conclusion to draw from this episode is that Republicans don’t want to win a presidential election ever again.
If it weren’t tragic, it would be almost funny to watch the GOP’s gaffes, stumbles and missed opportunities. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), vice chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee, has once again taken the prize for most outrageous comment with his comparison of young undocumented students to drug mules with “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner quickly admonished King, trying to draw a bright line between King’s words and any official GOP position. However, action on bringing a comprehensive immigration reform bill to the floor — not just rebukes — is what is needed to show that the GOP learned something from the 2012 election, when Republicans took a drubbing among Hispanic and Asian voters.
Whether Boehner embraces the role or not, he is clearly the key actor in the House’s play on immigration reform. Yet so far, he’s been more Hamlet than hero — hemming and hawing while his caucus goes to war with itself over whether reform is to be or not to be. Something is rotten indeed.
Meanwhile, the imperative for Republicans to find a real solution — even if it means angering some on the Hill — grows higher and higher. Recent Public Policy Polling in seven GOP congressional districts across the country showed that key Republicans in those districts stand to lose their elections if the House doesn’t pass immigration reform this year. But the damage is not limited to those individual elections. Independent and Republican voters surveyed in the poll also said that if reform dies in the House, they would be less likely to vote for any GOP candidate in national elections.
In addition, a new poll conducted by Latino Decisions and America’s Voice of 800 Latino voters in 24 Republican-held battleground districts found that disapproval of congressional Republicans in handling immigration policy is at an all-time high, with 70 percent of Latino voters who voted in the midterm elections expressing their ire.
Boehner’s problem, of course, lies in the fact that the only diversity in districts like King’s is in the ecosystem and the animals. Those Republicans must be convinced that the GOP’s national fate is more important than their own reelection.
Boehner also has to figure out how to fix his own missteps. It was an exceedingly bad idea to give Rep. Bob Goodlatte chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee in a year when immigration reform was sure to come up. Goodlatte has never been a friend of immigration reform. Back in February 2013, in an interview on NPR, he openly stated his concerns about passing immigration reform: “[I]f you give them [undocumented workers] legal status,” he said, “they can work anywhere in the United States — they’re not going to necessarily work at the hardest, toughest, dirtiest jobs.”
One could surmise that the powerful House Judiciary chairman would prefer to just leave undocumented immigrants undocumented so that they will just take whatever jobs they are given. That view can’t satisfy either conservative anti-immigrant Republicans or moderate Republicans, neither of whom likes the status quo.
In the end, Boehner and the House GOP seem to have no clear game plan. Behind the scenes, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) seems to be doing the most to try to push open a rapidly closing door. Just last Friday at a town hall event, Ryan said that he wants to see immigration reform brought to the floor for a vote regardless of support from a majority of the GOP caucus. National GOP funders and business interests who see immigration reform as essential to winning back the immigrant vote and reframing the party’s identity should step up their efforts to keep pushing in this direction.
Ultimately, Boehner has several tools he could use. He could, as Ryan suggests, allow an immigration bill — such as that drafted by the bipartisan House Gang of Seven — to move forward without a majority of his caucus’s support. He could also tacitly allow for successful organizing around what’s called a “discharge petition” that shows enough Democrats and Republicans support a bill so that it must move forward. And finally, he could force Goodlatte to pass enough pieces of immigration reform — including a path to citizenship — that it eventually adds up to a whole bill.
Any of these options would allow real work to get done on fixing America’s broken immigration system, signal to immigrant voters that the GOP cares about them and reassure top GOP funders that this is not just a “party of no.” It’s time for the House to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill and put its best case forward to immigrant voters that Republicans truly are the party of the future, not just the Grand Old Party of the past.
Pramila Jayapal is distinguished fellow at University of Washington Law School and distinguished Taconic fellow at the Center for Community Change. Follow her on Twitter @pramilaj.
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