After watching their main legislative priority be defeated in the waning days of the 111th Congress, immigration-reform advocates are resetting their lobbying goals. And they expect the incoming House GOP majority to be less receptive than its Democratic predecessor.
“It will be a difficult political climate,” said Andrea Zuniga DiBitetto, who works on immigration issues at the AFL-CIO. “With a Republican House, defense will play a large role.”
Late in this month’s lame-duck session, Senate Democrats failed to rally enough votes to cut off debate on the DREAM Act, a proposal that would allow undocumented young adults to rectify their immigration status by completing college or enlisting in the military. The bill passed the House with bipartisan support but failed a Dec. 18 Senate cloture vote that drew five Democratic defections in a 55-41 tally.
The bill’s demise also means that the immigration reform community will shelve the proposal for now and return to lobbying full time on a comprehensive rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws, according to the Immigration Policy Center’s Wendy Sefsaf.
“We’ll have to see — we’re prepared to play defense, we’re prepared to work with [Republicans] to prepare solutions that might work, that can actually make the Republicans look better in eyes of Latinos and Hispanics,” Sefsaf said. “We’re going to sit back and wait and see if they actually propose to fix things.”
Advocacy organizations will also focus their attention in 2011 on state legislatures, which are expected to take up less-ambitious immigration proposals such as tuition assistance for undocumented residents. And the immigration-reform community is preparing to fight a possible repeal of the 14th amendment, which grants citizenship to children born on U.S. soil.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) threw his support behind a possible repeal of birthright citizenship last summer, calling the constitutional provision a “mistake” on Fox News.
“All groups are turning to the states and saying, ‘Now, how can we help you come up with a rational policy that doesn’t step on the toes of the federal government?’” Sefsaf said. “The states may end up taking the lead if the Republicans in the House decide to just make a mockery of things.”
As the 112th Congress approaches, immigration-reform groups are also left wondering how long of a leash Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) will give Reps. Lamar Smith (Texas) and Steve King (Iowa), two prominent members of the Judiciary Committee who are outspoken critics of liberalized immigration laws.
Ahead of the cloture vote on the DREAM Act, King said in a statement that “subverting the rule of law by rewarding millions of illegal aliens for their presence in the country is an act of spite aimed at America’s voters.”
“The passage of the DREAM Act amnesty bill in the House of Representatives is an illegitimate act of a repudiated and rejected lame duck Congress,” added King, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel’s immigration subcommittee.
America’s Voice Deputy Director Lynn Tramonte said she’s looking for clues early in the new session as to whether the incoming House leadership is keeping Smith and King quiet.
“Now that Lamar Smith and Steve King are in charge of immigration policy for the House and they just spent the better part of the House debate on [the DREAM Act] calling these people criminals and gangbangers, we don’t expect a lot out of them,” Tramonte said. “But we do expect party leadership to at some point realize that they’re practicing political suicide by opposing comprehensive immigration reform.”
Tramonte also said her group expects to remind President Barack Obama of his 2008 campaign promises to overhaul the immigration system. But the White House won’t be the only one receiving house calls.
“He made a promise to Latino voters that he would engage comprehensive immigration reform during his first year in office; he can’t go back to that same group of voters and say, ‘Sorry I didn’t try,’” Tramonte said. “He’s going to have to do something [and] the fault line will be how Republicans respond. Will there be any Republicans in Congress who stand up to the nativists and say, ‘Shut up, guys, we need to get on the right side of history?’”