Immigration’s Legislative Gauntlet

Reform is alive, but its exposure to Congress could leave it maimed


The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee has approved comprehensive immigration legislation. Happy news, though to get the bill through with Republican support, Democrats had to abandon an amendment that would have given gay and lesbian spouses of U.S. citizens the same immigration prospects as heterosexual spouses. Thus, basic equity was sacrificed for the presumably greater good of passing legislation to rationalize immigration laws and free some 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. from legal limbo. A Senate floor vote on the bill is expected in late June.

Meanwhile, in the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte complained that the Senate bill wouldn’t secure the border. For some conservatives the notion has become close to an obsession, albeit impervious to facts on the ground. The U.S. spends about $18 billion a year on immigration control, more than on all other federal law enforcement efforts combined. Since 2004 the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents has doubled, to more than 21,000. The use of fencing, drones, and other measures has drastically expanded. And there’s evidence that it’s having an effect: In 2012 the U.S. Border Patrol recorded 364,768 apprehensions, down 50 percent from four years earlier. Meanwhile, the Senate legislation promises as much as $6.5 billion in additional funds for border technology, fencing (costing at least $4 million per mile), and more agents. There’s no credible claim that the U.S. border with Mexico is being neglected.

In a similar vein, the House risks transforming immigration reform into one more theater in its war against the Affordable Care Act. Many Republicans refuse to support legislation that doesn’t explicitly deny public funds to immigrants with provisional legal status.

There’s one very good reason immigration reform hasn’t collapsed: Democrats, including some who balked at the last overhaul effort, and mainstream Republicans recognize that their self-interest is aligned with the national-interest in passing a law. Even so, there’s only so much ideological baggage a bill can carry. If House Republicans insist on creating legislation far to the right of the Senate bill, the hard-won compromise will erode.

Preventing that unhappy future falls to Speaker John Boehner, who will have to facilitate debate while keeping the legislation from sinking under the ideological bugaboos that have rendered the House dysfunctional. Immigration reform may be the only meaningful legislation this House is capable of producing. If it shatters, the nation will suffer, and the damage to what remains of public faith in Congress will be significant. The damage to the Republican Party probably will be far worse.


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