President Obama has scheduled an immigration summit at the White House on June 8th, less than two weeks away. This bipartisan summit will apparently feature key Congressional leaders, and is being promoted by the White House as “an opportunity to launch a policy conversation that we hope will be able to start a debate that will take place in Congress later in the year”. In the meanwhile, The Hill reports that “The Senate’s new math has put an overall immigration package within reach: At least 57 senators from both parties are likely to support a comprehensive approach, with another 7 on the fence.” With such reporting, one would think that immigration benefits are close to being in the bag. However, there is ample reason to be skeptical, here’s why.
The immigration issue is largely political, like almost all issues on the Hill. Unless there is compelling political reason to move one way or another, rarely does Congress act. In the Senate, Majority Leader Reid was the loudest voice a few months ago promoting early and aggressive action on immigration reform. He was then performing poorly in polls for his upcoming election battle in Nevada in 2010, and needed the immigrant vote badly. While he continues to perform poorly in the polls, a credible Republican challenger has failed to materialize – his insistence on tackling immigration early has muted accordingly. In the House, while a major immigration benefits bill likely waits in the wings for an opportune moment, the Democratic leadership has thus far not moved the legislative calendar on CIR. The White House has, for its part, made clear that immigration has to wait for its turn behind health care reform, climate change, education and tax policy. Whether any oxygen would remain in the legislative air for the balance of this year for immigration is an open question. Observing the executive branch actions so far, Mr. Emmanuel’s deft political fingerprints are plain to see – plenty of hot air, very little real ameliorative action. ICE and CBP continue ham-handed enforcement, and “the Culture of No” is just as firmly ensconced at USCIS, DOS and DOL as it was under the Bush administration. We suspect that as Mr. Obama’s sky-high approval ratings slowly return to earth, his staff’s interest in immigration will rise in tandem. In a nutshell, immigration reform on the Hill is far from a done deal.
So, what’s the bottom line? Our view is colored by institutional and procedural matters on the Hill (not by any secret sources, nor by any private exchanges with specific persons on the Hill). We believe that immigration benefits have a fair chance of getting enacted based on the fact that Democrats enjoy near-record majorities at this time, when the Republicans have, thru their reflexive opposition, temporarily made major immigration benefits a partisan issue. If large scale benefits are not enacted now, we cannot imagine many more likely moments in the coming years. Since most immigrants cant vote (except for those who are already naturalized), our politicians do not pay much of a political price to postpone action on all kinds of pretexts. However, permitting the status quo of millions of undocumented Americans is no way to run a railroad, or a country. We urge Congress to get moving, and soon.