The scare tactics on the immigration bill moved into a higher gear on Sunday. Senator Chuck Schumer, a member of the Gang of Eight who designed the comprehensive bill now before the Senate, says that Republicans will face massive demonstrations and be politically punished if they fail to pass something similar in the House.
Schumer told Candy Crowley on CNN’s State of the Union that “this has the potential of becoming the next civil-rights movement.” He went on to warn that if Speaker John Boehner tries to bottle up the bill or eliminates a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, “I could see a million people on the mall in Washington — on the platform would not be the usual suspects but the leaders of business, the leaders of the Evangelical movement, the leaders of high tech as well as most Americans pressuring the House to act. I think they’re going to have to act whether they have a majority of Republicans [in the House] or not.”
Speaker Boehner announced last week that he would not support any immigration bill that didn’t accord with the “Hastert Rule,” which holds that a majority of the majority party must support a measure for it to be brought to the House floor.
The very real prospect that House Republicans won’t pass the Senate bill without making major changes of their own has many in the news media warning that failure could mean the very death of the GOP. Sunday, on CBS’s Face the Nation, the first question that host Bob Schieffer asked Alabama senator Jim Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee and a critic of the Gang of Eight bill, was a blatantly political one:
Do you think Republicans get it on immigration? Because people like Lindsey Graham are saying if you don’t do something, reaching out to Hispanics, you — it might not — you might not need to run anybody for president next time, because with the demographics changing in this country, it’s going to be impossible to elect a Republican president if you don’t get substantial Hispanic support.
Senator Sessions gamely pointed out that a new Congressional Budget Office study has found that the Gang of Eight bill would probably reduce illegal immigration by only 25 percent. “And CBO concludes that the legal immigration will be dramatically increased and we’ll have — in addition to that, we’re going to have lower wages and higher unemployment according to the CBO analysis of this bill,” Sessions said. “Why would any member of Congress want to vote for a bill at a time of high unemployment, falling wages, to bring in a huge surge of new labor that can only hurt the poorest among us the most?”
Polling numbers on immigration vary enough that one can find support for nearly every position on the issue. But what is clear is that the country isn’t waiting with bated breath for a comprehensive immigration bill. In a January 2013 Pew Research survey of voter priorities, immigration came in 17 out of 21 issues, falling below “moral decline” and the “influence of lobbyists.” Only 44 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of Democrats thought it a top priority. In 2007, the last time Congress debated illegal immigration, a full 69 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of Democrats thought it a top priority.
What killed immigration reform then was Ted Kennedy’s insistence on keeping union priorities in the bill, as well the secrecy surrounding the legislation. The bill was written behind closed doors, bypassed the Judiciary Committee, and was rushed to the floor for a vote. Then-senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, an early backer of the bill, told the New York Times that the secrecy of the process left people confused and “caused it to flop.”
This time around, the bill did go through Judiciary Committee hearings, but the bill that passed that committee has now been superseded by 1,200 pages of amendments offered up by Republican senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota. Senators will barely have time to read much of the bill before the floor vote that Majority Leader Harry Reid has scheduled for June 24.
And it’s not even clear that Hispanics who want immigration reform believe that a path to citizenship is the most important part of any reform package. Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas), the son of a Cuban immigrant, says it’s a myth that Hispanics insist on including amnesty (or something resembling it) in any bill. He told me last week that his own polls showed that 68 percent of Hispanics in Texas supported more border security; when they were asked if they supported a pathway to citizenship or work permits without citizenship, a plurality of 46 percent of Texas Hispanics supported the permit system and only 35 percent favored a pathway to citizenship. “It’s a fraud being perpetrated on Republicans — that citizenship is the linchpin of immigration reform,” he says. “In reality, it’s the linchpin of Democratic efforts to expand their voter base.”
Comprehensive immigration reform is always the path Democrats insist we follow as the price for their backing any reform effort. But there are other ways to approach reform.
Indeed, the cause of reform could be fatally undermined if a comprehensive bill passes the Senate on short notice without adequate debate and little time to explain it. House members will be understandably miffed that they are expected merely to vote on what the Senate dumps into their lap.
It’s telling that the scare tactics deployed by the proponents of comprehensive immigration reform all revolve around politics: massive rallies on the Washington Mall and an angry Hispanic electorate. In reality, it might be the folks using the scare tactics who are the ones running scared. Maybe they’re afraid that the longer their bill is debated and the more sunshine it’s exposed to, the less likely the American people are to support it.