WASHINGTON — As the clock wound down on the congressional legislative session in November, some Catholic observers were becoming less optimistic that the House of Representatives would tackle immigration reform.
"Certainly, there is not going to be any comprehensive bill. At best, there will be one small piece or another," said Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Migration and Refugee Services.
"I don’t see too much happening. Unfortunately, this is going to be dragged out," Bishop DiMarzio told the Register.
"There is not a lot of time left, and next year in particular doesn’t look like it will be good for us either," said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.
Schneck told the Register that he believed there actually was enough support in the Republican-controlled House to pass the comprehensive reform bill that the Senate passed in June. That bill included the controversial "pathway to citizenship" that several conservative Republican lawmakers have decried as amnesty.
However, up until early November, Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, had decided not to bring the Senate bill to the House floor because of its complexity and scope. Boehner’s spokesman, Brendan Buck, told reporters in October that the House was committed to a "commonsense, step-by-step approach" that would likely feature smaller piecemeal bills that would address border security, punitive measures for people who cross the border without documents and guest-worker visas.
The Senate bill would increase border-security measures, require undocumented immigrants to pay back taxes and fines and undergo background checks before applying for the 13-year path to citizenship.
Boehner, Schneck suggested, expended his political capital on the recent government shutdown and does not want to risk further eroding his standing in his own caucus by introducing a bill that a majority of House Republicans would not support.
"I don’t think [Boehner] has the political horsepower to take that risk," Schneck said.
Sen. Rubio’s Switch
The political dynamics in the House appear to have influenced Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida — a Republican member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that crafted the Senate bill — to back off on the comprehensive approach in favor of the piecemeal strategy. Rubio told reporters he was being "realistic" about what the House could accept.
"An all-or-nothing strategy on immigration reform would result in nothing," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told reporters.
Kevin Appleby, director of the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs for the USCCB, told the Register that Rubio was retreating from the "courageous position" he staked in the Senate.
"I think the approach now is like paying a ransom and not receiving any hostages in return," Appleby said. "It’s like we’re conceding to the House before there is even a conference committee."
However, Appleby stressed that immigration reform "will not be dead" even if the House does not address the issue in November. He said the 113th Congress could still take up a bill before it adjourns in 2014.
"We don’t have to put the calendar as our enemy here, despite what the pundits may claim," said Appleby, who also stressed that the manner in which immigration reform proceeds — piecemeal vs. comprehensive — is not as important as what the final legislative effort looks like.
"What’s key is that the final product that goes across the finish line includes all the elements that are needed," Appleby said. "I would think that, even if the House did pass bills in piecemeal fashion, they would still have to negotiate that with the Senate. We would then focus on how that final package would look, as opposed to how it got there."
‘Half a Loaf’
Bishop DiMarzio added that getting "half a loaf is better than none," when asked if he preferred the comprehensive over the piecemeal approach.
"The gridlock of Washington has been preventing anything from happening," Bishop DiMarzio said.
Up until recently, the USCCB has endorsed the comprehensive approach to immigration reform. Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration and Refugee Services, called on the House of Representatives in late September to pass a bill that gives the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States a "path to citizenship and full membership in our society."
But whether that would best be addressed in one single, comprehensive bill or through a series of smaller legislative steps is a question that Melissa Lopez, an immigration lawyer and the executive director of the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, Inc. in El Paso, Texas, said is up for debate.
"I’m torn. I want something. At least with the piecemeal approach you can talk through the issues as they come up, instead of trying to understand everything at once," said Lopez, whose agency assists an estimated 3,000 people a year with immigration-related issues in El Paso, which is adjacent to the border with Ciudad Juarez, one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico.
Lopez told the Register that she was still "hopeful" that Congress will address immigration reform, though she was not optimistic that would happen before the legislative session ended. She noted that the House was focused on other issues, such as the federal budget, the next debt-ceiling debate and agricultural subsidies.
Lopez said she believed the comprehensive approach could still work, but that it needs an informed debate on the various interconnected issues. Lopez said she attended the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings on the legislation earlier this year, and she heard several senators asking basic questions that revealed they were not in command of the details.
"They just don’t understand it the way that people who work on this every day do," Lopez said, adding that she was not surprised by Rubio’s switch on immigration reform.
"I was kind of expecting it, given the political climate in D.C.," Lopez said. "I just hoped he would have been stronger in his position."
Schneck said he believed Rubio was staking out a new position based on political expediency — Rubio is considered a leading Republican presidential candidate in 2016 — as well as the reality in the House of Representatives.
"I think Sen. Rubio is actually also realizing these are the only cards we’ve been dealt, and this is the best we can do — and let’s get the best we can," Schneck said, adding that there still probably would not be enough time for Congress to debate and pass all the smaller bills before the session ended.
"Since [the bills] would generate firestorms themselves, it would be tough even to pass them," Schneck said.
With that said, President Barack Obama told reporters Nov. 5 at the White House that there were several House Republicans who were willing to support the Senate’s bill.
"It’s my estimation that we actually have the votes to get comprehensive immigration reform done in the House right now," Obama said. "The politics are challenging for [Speaker Boehner] and others, and we want to make it as easy for them as possible."
Several big business leaders, including the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have also been lobbying House Republicans to take action on immigration reform. U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona and a Gang of Eight member, told The Arizona Republic in late October that he sensed "active movement" on a potential House plan that would address the legal status of the nation’s undocumented immigrants without including the pathway to citizenship.
The outside pressure from business groups, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), immigration advocates and evangelical and Catholic religious leaders also comes at a time when Republican leaders are assessing their party’s long-term standing with the nation’s growing Hispanic population. Some Republican leaders are concerned that alienating that population could harm the party in future national elections, whereas other conservative strategists and pundits believe granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants will only swell the Democratic Party’s voter base.
In addition, House conservatives are also wary that the piecemeal approach would still result in comprehensive legislation when the bills reach conference committee. Schneck said he believed the best possibility — even if unlikely — of passing a comprehensive bill would be for the House to bring it up, soon, for a straight up-or-down vote.
"They would have to do it very quickly, no later than next February," Schneck said. "Or else this will get sucked into election-year politics."
Despite the conventional wisdom, Appleby said election-year politics is not necessarily a fatal barrier to meaningful reform.
"The majority, if not all, of the major immigration legislation since the 1960s has been passed in an election year," Appleby said. "There’s precedent for passing significant reform in an election year, so I think that’s a red herring."
"I think there is a certain contingent of Republicans who would be with us if they knew they were not facing a primary challenge," Appleby added. "In some ways, an election year might open some doors to us. The timing is what will determine that."
Brian Fraga writes from
Fall River, Massachusetts.