There’s one big reason why, no matter how much happy talk you hear about “comprehensive immigration reform” from President Obama and members of Congress, it’s unrealistic to expect much action this year: This is an election year.
All 435 members of the House of Representatives face re-election this year, as they regularly do every other year. Until recently, once someone was elected to the House, he or she could expect never again to have much intraparty opposition during primary elections.
But that went out the window with the advent of the highly ideological tea party organizations, which have not hesitated to challenge and oust even the longest-term incumbents, including Republican Sens. like Richard Lugar of Indiana and Robert Bennett of Utah.
This has a direct impact on the potential fate of changes to America’s highly flawed immigration system this year. That’s because almost two-thirds of the current Republican majority in the House comes from heavily gerrymandered districts where election of a Democrat is highly unlikely.
The majority of GOP voters in those so-called “red” districts tend to lean rightward, and the tea party is strongest in those places. That means even if they are inclined to vote for a limited pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants who have been law-abiding residents after arriving here, doing so could amount to political suicide. Republicans generally call any such plan “amnesty.”
Things are different, of course, for Republicans like Jeff Denham and David Valadao, two Central California congressmen with heavily Latino districts. The same for Republican Gary Miller of San Bernardino County.
All joined the limited-amnesty camp during the latter half of 2013, knowing it would make some of their conservative constituents unhappy. But since the vast bulk of the GOP House majority refused even to hold a vote on whether to allow the issue to come to a vote on the House floor, where Democrats could have joined with a few Republicans to pass significant changes, these men’s stances were never tested by the need to cast an actual vote.
Chances are the same will be true this year, unless Republican Speaker John Boehner is willing to risk defying the right wing of his membership, as he at times hinted he might while complaining about the tea party in late fall.
Despite his complaints about what the far right of his party is doing to the overall GOP, Boehner still shows no sign of allowing a vote on any comprehensive changes. In late December, for example, he said, “We have no intention of going to conference on the Senate bill,” a reference to the bipartisan compromise passed by senators last June, which allows for a very arduous path to citizenship. That means the speaker will not allow the House to vote on any bill similar enough to the Senate’s version that it might merit an effort to hash out House/Senate differences.
Instead, Boehner and other House Republicans have spoken in oxymorons like this one: “We’re committed to moving forward on step-by-step comprehensive reforms.” That’s an oxymoron because nothing done step-by-step will ever be comprehensive.
But Boehner’s remark and some subsequent statements may mean his House majority will accept some changes that stop short of wide amnesty. He’s also hinted he might do something substantial after the springtime filing deadlines for potential primary election candidates have passed. After that, hard-line anti-immigration forces can’t mount as many primary election challenges to incumbents.
Filing deadlines, of course, fall within the next month or two in many states.
If those deadlines leave much of his majority without opposition from even farther right than where they stand, there could be some immigration action.
The most likely prospect is a guest-worker bill to create a neo-Bracero program benefiting big businesses and big farms that like to hire cheap immigrant labor, but don’t much care if their workers ever become citizens.
All of which means that while the need for immigration changes grows stronger by the day, it will never be the top priority for individual members of Congress. Most important to them will always be their own survival, and that means the only changes that will pass will be ones they see as no threat to them.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at email@example.com.