Is Immigration Reform Dead?

November 12, 2013

Last week saw a flurry of stories with headlines likeObama renews push for immigration overhaul,” “Obama meets with CEOs to push immigration reform,” and “Chamber of Commerce, Bloomberg push immigration reform.” These articles were notable because they demonstrated the strength, breadth, and commitment of the pro-reform lobby, but they were quite useless as actual updates on the fate of immigration reform, because they failed to keep the focus where it belongs: House Speaker John Boehner. 

As a reminder of where we are: immigration reform passed the Senate back in June, and the President would happily sign it in to law tomorrow. But he can’t, because first it needs to pass the House. The good news is that a majority in the House support reform (or so most observers think). The bad news is that, as Speaker of the House, John Boehner gets to decide which bills come up for a vote, and he has been clear that immigration reform will not get a vote unless it has the support of a majority of House Republicans.

Until immigration reform gets a vote, it can’t pass, no matter how well it polls, no matter how many billionaires earnestly sing its praises, and no matter how focused President Obama remains. These things do make a difference, but only insofar as they help bring the bill to the floor of the House for a vote. That’s the whole game here (as it has been since the Senate bill passed), and there are only two ways to make it happen: 

  1. Convince Boehner
  2. Replace Boehner

All indications are that Boehner (who just might be the weakest Speaker in history) doesn’t feel like he could keep his gavel if he angers the Republican base on this issue. Convincing him to bring a bill to the floor means convincing him that he wouldn’t be punished by his own party for doing so. Unfortunately, the Republican base has made it very clear that they specifically don’t want immigration reform, and that they generally oppose any policy supported by the Obama administration. It’s hard to imagine that changing in the near term, unless proposed legislation gets watered down so much that it risks losing support among Democrats. So the only surprise about this week’s much gloomier headlines is that they were preceded by last week’s false optimism. It has always been all about Boehner, and he has always been the leader of a party that is broadly opposed to immigration reform, which has always made reform unlikely before the 2014 midterms.  

But those elections do represent a real chance for immigration reform. If Democrats take back control of the House and keep the Senate, immigration reform will pass, probably within the first weeks of 2015. But even if Democrats don’t win a majority in the House, high Hispanic turnout and some unexpected Republican losses could finally convince Republican leadership that they are better off angering their base (who after all aren’t going to start voting for Democrats) than they are continuing to stand in the way of immigration reform.

However, an electoral victory of that scale would require that the pro-reform coalition hold together for another year, and it is not at all clear that will happen. Grassroots organizers and activists may become disillusioned with Democrats as the bill languishes, or business interests who genuinely care about immigration reform may decide that they care about low taxes most of all. But that is the story to keep an eye on, rather than the next round of “Obama Says Immigration Reform Still A Possibility for 2013” articles that are surely on the way.

Competitive 2014 US House races according to expert predictions highlighted. Seats that are vacant are, for the purposes of this map, grouped with the party that last held the seat.



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