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Policy Update: Immigration Reform takes Center Stage

November 16, 2012 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

In the aftermath of last week’s presidential election, the prospects for immigration reform have suddenly brightened. Many in the Republican Party have been saying, in the past week, that the Party must learn how to broaden its appeal, particularly with Latino voters. As the USA Today editorial board noted, if Mr. Romney wasn’t so unpopular with Latino voters in this election, the outcome might have been different.

    “Had Mitt Romney taken the 44% of the Hispanic vote that George W. Bush took in 2004, rather than the 27% that he actually got … [he] would have won the popular vote by about 1 million votes, rather than having lost it by about 3 million. Those votes would have shifted Florida, Colorado, Nevada and potentially other battleground states into the Republican column.”

Just two days after the election, on November 8, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in an interview that he thinks the immigration issue has been around for “far too long.”
    “I think a comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I’m confident that the president, myself, others, can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.”

Since then, many Republican Party leaders, inside and outside of Congress, have mentioned the need to deal with the immigration issue. (You can read a collection of those quotes here.) These leaders include some who previously supported reform, Senator John McCain and Representative Jeff Flake, for example, but backed away from it in the context of their own primary reelection fights.

Conservative constituency groups press for reform
Pro-reform conservative constituency groups are also speaking up for reform. On November 13, prominent leaders in the evangelical Christian community sent letters to President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority and Minority leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell urging them to meet with evangelical leaders to discuss immigration reform within the first 92 days of the new Congress. On November 12, a spokesperson for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that he is “hopeful” that immigration reform can be accomplished “within the year,” and that immigration reform would be a priority for the Chamber.

A priority for the president
For his part, the president said in a press conference on November 14 that he expects an immigration reform bill will be introduced in the next Congress very soon after his inauguration (January 20).

Pushback in the Republican caucus
Even in the new post-election political environment, however, support for reform in Congress is obviously not unanimous. Even among those who are now saying reform is necessary, there is vagueness about the meaning of reform. A day after his remarks about a comprehensive approach to immigration drew fire from restrictionist members of his caucus in the House, Speaker Boehner appeared to back down, saying that what he meant was “a common-sense, step-by-step approach that secures our borders, allows us to enforce our laws and fix our broken immigration system.” One narrative that we are seeing develop in the news stories is that once the borders are secure, Congress can move on to regularizing the status of undocumented immigrants. Depending on the interpretation of “securing the border,” this could be an excuse for further obstruction on the issue.

Another poll shows public support for reform
There is another impetus for reform, aside from the perceived need for Republicans to attract a greater share of the Latino vote: In a poll released November 14 by ABC News and the Washington Post, 57% of the public supports a “path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.” Only 39% are opposed. The new poll reflects the exit polling conducted of voters in last week’s election, approximately two-thirds of whom supported offering undocumented immigrants legal status.

Too early for details
In advance of the convening of the next Congress convening, various legislators are talking about guest workers, visas for STEM graduates, and other pieces. In the Senate, Charles Schumer (D-N.Y., Chair of the Senate’s Immigration Subcommittee) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are reported to be in talks to draw up an immigration proposal, dusting off a set of principles they developed two years ago, in a different context.

In sum, it is too early to speculate on what kind of legislation members of Congress will coalesce around as they try to figure out how to adjust to the new post-election political reality.

The New Congress

There will be 80 new members when the new Congress convenes in January. The National Journal has put profiles of all of them on their Web site here.

Leadership in the House and Senate remains largely the same. Republicans in the House will retain John Boehner of Ohio as Speaker. Eric Cantor of Virginia will remain as Majority Leader and Kevin McCarthy of California was reelected to the position of Majority Whip. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington was elected to the position of Chair of the Republican Conference, the number four leadership post. Rep. McMorris Rogers is the only woman in a top leadership post in the Republican caucus.

Nancy Pelosi will retain her post as Minority Leader in the House. Others returning to top leadership posts on the Democratic side are Steny Hoyer of Maryland (Minority Whip) and James Clyburn of North Carolina (Assistant to the Democratic Leader).

For Senate Democrats, Harry Reid of Nevada will remain as Majority Leader. Richard Durbin of Illinois will remain as Majority Whip. Charles Schumer of New York keeps his job as Chair of the Democratic Policy Committee. Patty Murray of Washington will continue to be Chair of the Democratic caucus.

Angus King, the independent Senator newly elected from Maine, has decided he will caucus with Democrats, meaning Democrats next year will have 55 senators in their caucus.

Republican Senators will keep Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as Minority Leader. John Cornyn of Texas will be Minority Whip, replacing John Kyl of Arizona who is retiring. John Thune of South Dakota will continue to be Republican Conference Chair. John Barrasso of Wyoming will continue to be Republican Policy Committee Chair. Jerry Moran of Kansas will replace Sen. John Cornyn as Chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Lame Duck

Congress returned this week for the start of its lame duck session. Thus far, it has been preoccupied with organizational issues for the next Congress (including reelection of leadership) and preliminary negotiations on the fiscal issues it will have to resolve one way or another before the 112th Congress adjourns.

Update: LA Council Approves City ID

In our Policy Update of October 26, we mentioned that a Committee of the Los Angeles City Council approved a plan to solicit bids for the creation of an identification card that will be issued to residents regardless of immigration status. On November 7, the full City Council approved the plan by a vote of 12 to 1. The card will be developed once a vendor is found to create it, and it may be used for opening bank accounts, borrowing library books and paying utility bills, among other uses.

Update: Part of South Carolina Law Goes into Effect

On November 15, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel issued an order that will allow a provision of South Carolina’s immigration law (Act 69) to go into effect. Police will now be able to check the immigration status of persons stopped for other violations. This and other provisions of the law have been blocked since December 2011. The Judge Gergel lifted his injunction on the “show me your papers” provision in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Arizona’s SB 1070. In his decision, the judge suggested that plaintiffs may return to court in the future on an “applied challenge based upon subsequent factual and legal developments.”

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