Policy Update: Immigration Reform and the Government Shutdown

October 9, 2013

Government Shutdown Complicates Politics, Timeline

Beginning October 1, the government had no money to continue operations into a new fiscal year that began on that day. By the end of September (the end of the federal government’s fiscal year 2013), Congress had completed none of the 12 appropriations bills it must pass to keep the various government agencies running. Instead, the House and the Senate had drafted a “continuing resolution” to keep the government running at the same spending level as approved for fiscal year 2013. However, House Republicans attached provisions to delay or scrap parts of the Affordable Care Act, which Democrats in the Senate could not agree to (nor could the president), and so government workers were sent home and government properties were closed.

Many of the immigration functions of the government are still operating under provisions that allow for continuation of those functions essential to the protection of life and property, national security, or which are funded by fees. Many Customs and Border Protection functions, including Border Patrol and staffing at ports of entry, are considered essential and exempt from furlough, as is much of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including detention and removal. USCIS is fee-funded, and so will continue as normal, though E-Verify, operated with appropriated funds, is down during the shutdown. Some immigration-related functions, though, will be shut down. For example, at the Executive Office for Immigration Review (the immigration courts) there are no hearings for non-detained individuals (meaning already lengthy court backlogs well get longer) and no travel will be provided for most refugees approved to resettle in the U.S.

The standoff over the budget and the debt ceiling is not exactly building goodwill between the parties, and as of this writing it is not clear when and how the standoff will end. Most observers believe a majority of Congress would like to move on, but, a group of hard-liners has divided the Republicans in Congress, and has managed to bring Congress to the edge of a cliff.

The growing animosity will factor in to Congressional business for the remainder of the session. However, as public opinion turns away from Republicans who have pressed the shutdown strategy, more moderate members may decide to show the public that Republicans can tackle serious problems. As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post pointed out in this article (written before the shutdown):

    “If Republicans get pasted politically in the coming government shutdown and debt limit fights, it’s not impossible they’ll be looking for some way to prove they can address the country’s problems.”

This sentiment was echoed by conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin, as the shutdown entered its second week:

    “A setback for the Republican absolutists on the [continuing resolution and] debt ceiling may loosen their grip on immigration reform while emboldening moderates to stake out a viable approach to immigration reform.”

Immigration Reform is one of the few non-budget issues queued up for action, post-shutdown, with the Senate having already passed a bill and several bills in the House ready for floor action. It should be noted, furthermore, that the various “windows” that have been discussed in the press during which immigration reform may move in Congress are simply the current opportunities based on the projected Congressional calendar. However, ultimately the leadership of the House and Senate can determine when immigration reform, or any legislation, can move, and hopes for immigration reform in this Congress don’t become exhausted until the session ends at the end of 2014. While conventional wisdom indicates that difficult issues requiring bipartisan support such as immigration reform are harder to accomplish during an election year, they are not impossible; in fact most major immigration legislation in the last 25 years has been enacted in election years.

House Leaders Believe Reform is Still Possible

For their part, House Republican leaders continue to say that immigration reform will be taken up by the House this year. Most recently, interviewed for a segment of Univision’s “Al Punto” that aired October 6, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, said that there was still time for a compromise on immigration.

    “We must pass immigration reform. It’s a priority for Republicans, for Democrats. There’s a recognition that it’s important to America. It’s important to our economy. America has long been the land of immigrants.”

Meanwhile, the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), has said that, yes, fixing the immigration system is important, and that something must be done about the undocumented resident population (as long as there is no “special path” to citizenship). He continues to say that the House rejects the Senate approach, and that the House will continue to take its “step-by-step” approach of piecemeal reform.

In the end, though, just as with a real stairway, all the steps have to be in place in order to get to the next level. If it were a house, missing steps might lead to a lawsuit; with immigration reform, leaving out the step leading to a path to citizenship will have electoral consequences. As this commentary in the Washington Post notes, Hispanic media is carefully watching the immigration debate, and is ready to blame Republicans if there ultimately is no immigration reform with a path to citizenship. That will compound the problem Republicans already have with Latino voters. There have been many public opinion surveys of Hispanic voters demonstrating that immigration reform is important to these voters. In this Public Religion Research Institute survey of Hispanic voters, respondents were three times more likely to be identified with the Democratic Party than with the Republican Party, and two thirds said they felt closer to the Democratic Party than they did in the past. More than half said they would be less likely to support a candidate who opposes immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.

House “Gang of Eight” Breaks Apart, Democrats Introduce Immigration Bills

On September 20, two more Republicans Representatives departed the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that had been working on a comprehensive immigration reform bill since before the beginning of this Congress. Representatives John Carter (R-Texas) and Sam Johnson (R-Texas) released a statement saying they did not trust the Obama administration to enforce the law, but in the end, the Republican members of the group were just not getting support from Republican leadership.

The demise of the Gang of Eight provided the opportunity for reform advocates in the House, who had deferred to the bipartisan group, to move forward, and on September 21, Representatives Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Filemon Vela (D-Texas) introduced H.R. 3163, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act (CIR ASAP). This bill is similar to one introduced by Rep. Luis Gutierrez in 2009. Its provisions are more generous than the bipartisan reform bill that passed the Senate. (A summary of the bill can be found here, and a brief comparison of CIR ASAP and the Senate bill is contained in this release from Grijalva’s office.

On October 2, a group of Democratic members of the House introduced comprehensive immigration reform legislation, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, H.R. 15. The bill is a House version of the bill that passed the Senate in June, with some important exceptions. The main difference is in the border enforcement provisions. In the House bill, border provisions come from a bill introduced by Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. That bill (H.R. 1417, the Border Security Results Act) passed the committee with unanimous bipartisan support in May. The McCaul bill substitutes for the controversial Corker-Hoeven border enforcement provisions included in the Senate-passed bill.

While the bill was introduced by Democrats (and now has 178 co-sponsors), it is composed of provisions that won bipartisan support in the Senate and (in the case of the border provisions) in the House. (A summary of the bill, noting changes from the Senate bill, can be found here.) While these bills are unlikely to gain much Republican support, their introduction provides some impetus for Republicans to move forward with their own proposals that can move the process forward to a conference with the Senate.

Pressure for Reform Continues

On October 5, advocates around the country staged rallies, marches, and other events in support of immigration reform. In all, there were more than 180 events in 40 states. These events were followed by a rally in Washington on October 8 in which nearly 200 leaders, including eight members of Congress, were arrested in a civil disobedience action. Advocates say this is the beginning of an escalation of pressure on Congress to pass reform. During the month of October, there will be many efforts representing many points on the political spectrum to prod Congress into action.

For example, during the period October 12 – 20, Evangelical Christian advocates for reform are planning more than 300 events in 40 states. The events will focus on praying for immigrants and lawmakers, and for action on immigration reform that reflects biblical values. At the end of October, hundreds of faith, law enforcement and business leaders from across the country will come to Washington for a series of events, including meetings with members of Congress, a panel discussion program featuring conservative leaders in faith, business, law enforcement and politics, and a press conference. The Washington gathering will be accompanied by a digital grassroots effort in targeted congressional districts and an ad campaign.

While Washington Remains Stuck, States Move Forward

With federal immigration reform stalled in Congress, a number of states have moved forward, passing laws to accommodate and integrate resident undocumented immigrants.

In California, Governor Brown signed a bill on October 3 allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses. On October 5, the governor signed a raft of immigration bills including the TRUST Act, which prohibits law enforcement officials from detaining undocumented immigrants on the basis of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement hold except under certain conditions such as having committed a serious criminal offense. Other bills signed: make it a crime to threaten to report the immigration status of an individual; place certain restrictions or requirements on individuals providing immigration assistance related to DACA or comprehensive immigration reform; loosen tuition requirements for certain foreign students in community colleges and the California State University; and create penalties against employers who retaliate against employees on the basis of citizenship state. “While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead. I’m not waiting,” Governor Brown said in a release announcing the signing.

While California is now the largest state to offer drivers’ licenses to the undocumented, it was only the latest of seven other states to do so this year. The measures relating to drivers’ licenses and other efforts to accommodate undocumented immigrants in the states are documented in this publication from the National Immigration Law Center.

Mexican Embassy Launches Consular Services Smartphone App

On October 7, the Mexican Government launched a new app for mobile phones, “MiConsulmex.” The app is targeted to the Mexican community in the U.S., and provides information related to Mexican consular services and outreach. Among other services, this application will allow its users to find the nearest consulate and schedule an appointment in the MEXITEL online service. It also contains current information about the immigration reform debate and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. A flyer about the app (in Spanish) can be downloaded here, and the app itself is available here for Apple and here for Android devices.