“I’ll be trying to get this sticky immigration situation worked out.”

December 6, 2013

So says Rebecca Tallent regarding her recent hire as a legislative assistant to Speaker John Boehner. Ms. Tallent previously served as Chief of Staff to Senator John McCain, and was most recently the director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Given Ms. Tallent’s history working to get Republicans on board with immigration reform, her hire is naturally being treated as a sign that Boehner is getting serious about passing a bill. Pro-reform elements are optimistic:

“It’s a signal that despite the fact that Speaker Boehner really hasn’t been able to move his caucus forward all year, that he’s not giving up,” said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science and Latino/Chicano studies at the University of California-Irvine.

While anti-reform elements are angered:

“It confirms what we always knew: that the Republican leadership in the House is pro-amnesty, but they just don’t know how to get it past their members,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the anti-reform Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. “I assume the point is for her to try to cook up a way to get a majority of the Republican caucus to vote for something.”

But what sort of “something” might House Republicans be willing to vote for? Comprehensive reform remains unlikely, owing mainly to Republican opposition to anything that might be considered “amnesty.” However, as some components of the Senate-passed bill are popular with Republicans, Boehner has signaled a desire to create standalone bills with narrower focus. A bill increasing funding for border security, for example, would probably get 100% support from House Republicans. Increasing the number of visas available to high-skill workers could also get a majority of Republicans on board, as might a bill bolstering programs for seasonal and migrant agricultural workers.

Super strength adhesive.

Passing smaller, standalone bills would allow Republicans to demonstrate that they aren’t against all immigration, and would get the Chamber of Commerce (a typical Republican ally which has been outspoken in favor of reform) off their backs. Most importantly, it would put pressure back on Democrats, who may be unwilling to go along with this piecemeal approach.

While president Obama has signaled that he would be fine with a series of smaller bills, Democrats are likely to remain adamant that any reform include a pathway to citizenship  – or at the very least long-term employment authorization – for undocumented immigrants. If the Republican House doesn’t pass such a bill, Senate Democrats may vote against the other smaller bills. Democrats have long resisted separately passing the broadly popular parts of immigration reform, thinking that doing so would remove any impetus to deal with the more controversial parts.

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, FWD.us, 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.

If Ms. Tallent’s hire signals that Speaker Boehner is ready to move forward with such a plan, it could soon be Senate Democrats who find themselves in a difficult situation. 

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