Boehner’s New Immigration Plan: A Ploy Worth Considering?

January 28, 2014

For decades, the main sticking point in negotiations over immigration reform has been the fate of undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. Conservatives have been unwilling to consider a pathway to citizenship, arguing that such a policy is unfair to the millions of immigrants who have followed the rules (they have also made a few less noble points). Meanwhile, immigration activists have refused to consider any immigration reform legislation that doesn’t  include a pathway to citizenship, fearing that if the popular aspects of immigration reform are allowed to pass separately, the nation will continue to overlook the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently here. It’s been a long stalemate. 

In this context, news that House Speaker John Boehner is set to offer his party’s “immigration principles,” which will include a narrow pathway to citizenship, could signal a breakthrough. Alternatively, Boehner could be releasing these “principles” in hopes of dividing the pro-reform coalition, putting Democrats in a difficult position, and ultimately killing reform. 

A Breakthrough

The fact is, Speaker John Boehner holds an ironclad veto over any immigration reform legislation, and his caucus does not want a pathway to citizenship. With Democrats unlikely to take the House back in the midterms, that situation looks to hold for the duration of the Obama presidency. As such, it has always been hugely unlikely that a full pathway to citizenship (such as the one from the Senate bill) would pass. 

And indeed, the Republicans are proposing no such thing. The “pathway” in their plan is exceedingly narrow, offering eventual citizenship only to so-called DREAMers (those who were brought to the United States as children).  Everyone else (the vast majoritiy of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S.) would only have a “path to legal status,” i.e. legal residency and employment authorization.

While far from what Democrats want, this is a real improvement on recent Republican proposals, which have focused on either unfeasible mass deportations or inhumane and counterproductive “self-deportation” tactics. It may also be the most generous proposal Speaker Boehner could get through his caucus. In any case, extending employment authorization to all U.S. residents would significantly improve millions of lives. This proposal, if it becomes real, should be seriously considered.

A Ploy

On the other hand, this proposal also squares neatly with the idea that Republicans are not negotiating in good faith, but are rather trying to divide the pro-reform coalition, while also shifting blame for immigration reform’s eventual failure on to Democrats. We outlined this possibility in December:

This may be the Republican end game – pass a series of narrow and popular bills out of the House, but ignore the pathway to citizenship entirely, leaving Senate Democrats with only bad options.  Democrats could pass the small bills, but lose out on creating a pathway to citizenship, which would anger their base. Or they could block all immigration bills until the House passes “amnesty,” allowing Republicans to plausibly claim that Democrats are blocking reform, while also testing the strength of the pro-reform coalition. It is easy to imagine the Chamber of Commerce,, and other pro-reform elements of the business community pressuring Democrats to pass the smaller bills that address particular business concerns, leaving the grassroots activists – most of whom are primarily concerned with the fate of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. – without an ally.

Two weeks ago the reform coalition began to show signs of weakening, when a group of DREAMers wrote a powerful letter suggesting that disagreement over the pathway to citizenship should no longer stand in the way of passing any immigration legislation at all:

As undocumented advocates, we do want citizenship rights. We believe that this is our country, and our family’s home. We do want to be able to vote and voice our opinions. We cannot, however, wait for that to happen while our families are being persecuted. Walking away with nothing is not an option for us; “citizenship-or-nothing” is not an option. We can’t ask our communities to wait for “citizenship” while we see our mothers, our fathers and our children being taken from our homes by immigration. We can’t wait while we see our families being taken into detention centers for months and even years while our children are being traumatized. 

By offering DREAMers – but only DREAMers – a pathway to citizenship, Boehner is helping drive a wedge between those committed to a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants and everyone else in the pro-reform coalition. He even managed to do so without having to prove that his own caucus would support the “principles” he’s outlining, which is far from a sure thing. For a man who has received his fair share of (well-deserved) ridicule over the past few years, it’s a rather brilliant display of tactics.

Difficult Decisions

At this point, it seems as if Boehner has won. If immigration reform fails, Democrats will plausibly take some of the blame. He will have kept a victory from Obama and pleased the Republican voter base. If immigration reform passes, it will be without the pathway to citizenship, which would anger the Democratic base and position the legislation as a loss for Obama (while pleasing the Republican donor base, which is interested in the many business-friendly and defense-spending aspects of immigration reform).

Politics aside, an important decision looms: accept the Republican blueprint for reform, or start all over again at some point in the future. Immigration reform without a full pathway to citizenship would create a legally enshrined secondary class of citizenry, in which we will let you work our hardest and least pleasant jobs, but we will never grant you full rights as an American. On the other hand, the remaining aspects of immigration reform would generate enormous humanitarian and economic benefits, and it could be years or decades before reform has this much momentum again. It would be a bitter pill to swallow for reform activists, but absent shifting political winds putting Democrats in a position to retake the House, it might be time to consider such a Plan B.




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