Of the many issues left unfinished by Congress when they left town for the holiday break, an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws is one that is certainly not going away.
2013 saw the first major attempt at a comprehensive immigration reform bill since 2006-2007, when it was a top priority for President George W. Bush. Anger from the right and the left helped kill several pieces of legislation, shelving the issue for several years.
After the 2012 presidential election, when Republican nominee Mitt Romney recorded a dismal 27 percent to President Obama’s 71 percent among Hispanic voters, there was widespread speculation – bolstered by an endorsement for comprehensive immigration reform from the Republican National Committee – that 2013 was the year with the best hope at tackling a contentious issue.
That didn’t happen. Things moved quickly at first: a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers that included Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida, brought together a diverse coalition of business and faith leaders, Latino advocacy and labor groups, farmers, Silicon Valley and muscled a comprehensive bill through the Senate with a bipartisan vote. Their version would provide a conditional path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States, pour billions of dollars into the efforts to seal off and secure the southern border and ports of entry, create a new work visa for future immigrants, implement broad electronic work verification and overhaul the legal visa system to eliminate backlogs and update various visa categories.
The bill, for all its bipartisan bonhomie, was dead on arrival in the House of Representatives, where many in the Republican majority oppose either the idea of passing a massive, comprehensive piece of legislation in the style of Obamacare or rewarding immigrants who had crossed the border illegally or overstayed visas with anything that might be perceived by their base as amnesty.
A bipartisan group in the House working on a comprehensive bill collapsed in the fall. Democrats introduced a version of the Senate bill that has a few Republican cosponsors, but is still the hefty kind of legislation House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has rejected. The Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, helped usher a series of smaller bills through his committee, none of which dealt with the illegal population and none of which had Democratic support. Despite several public exhortations by Mr. Obama this fall, no immigration bills were put to a vote on the floor of the House. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said before lawmakers left town that Boehner told her immigration would “have to wait until next year.”
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All the while, advocates who want to see Congress pass legislation that includes a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants have gotten more aggressive in their efforts to convince the House Republican leadership to put a bill to a vote, stopping by their homes, offices and even breakfast spots, uninvited, to visit, pray, and demand a vote.
But the pressure isn’t limited to House Republicans, who advocates view as the main obstacle to legislation passing Congress. As the year comes to a close with no resolution in sight, they have also stepped up criticism of Mr. Obama, whose administration has deported record numbers of immigrants in recent years. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that in 2013, they deported 368,644 people, the majority of whom were apprehended while or shortly after attempting to illegally enter the United States. That’s a 10-percent drop from 2011, when 410,000 were deported.
A young undocumented student heckled the president during a speech on immigration earlier this year, echoing the activists who have called on the administration to halt deportations. Mr. Obama says he cannot.
“I respect the passion of these young people because they feel deeply about the concerns for their families,” he told the protestor at the speech. “If in fact I could solve all these problems without passing laws in Congress, then I would do so. But we’re also a nation of laws -- that’s part of our tradition -- and so the easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws.”