Immigration Reform: Ball is in House’s Court When Congress Returns

Immigration Reform: Ball is in House’s Court When Congress Returns
Advocacy organizations and many Democratic members of Congress plan to make the point during August recess that comprehensive immigration reform is badly needed and would be positive for the economy.  One proponent of reform, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), told his constituents that October could be the month when the House votes on a plan to provide probationary visas to undocumented immigrants.  Other reports suggest that the House is drafting a KIDS Act that could be voted on in the fall that would bear some similarity to the DREAM Act for immigrants brought to the United States as children that failed to pass the Senate by one vote in 2010.

Thus far the House has used a piecemeal approach to immigration reform. Four partisan bills were approved in the Judiciary Committee, some of whose members are openly hostile to immigration reform with a path to citizenship.  One bill passed 28-0 in the more immigration-friendly Homeland Security Committee in May, the Border Security Results Act of 2013 (H.R. 1417).  It provides an approach to border security, a key issue for many Republicans and some Democrats, that is favored by advocates over the approach that was inserted into the Senate bill to assure bipartisan passage.

The Senate agreed to an amendment sponsored by Senators Corker (R-TN) and Hoeven (R-ND), the so-called ‘border surge,’ that calls for 20,000 more border agents, hundreds of miles of additional fencing, more surveillance equipment including additional aerial drones, and biometric tracking systems at all international ports and airports to detect people who have overstayed visas. The amendment authorizes the Border Patrol to search without warrant 100 miles from the southern border, compared to 25 miles on the northern border, and ignores the pleas of many local authorities along the border who have developed positive relationships with their neighbors in Mexico. The cost of border enforcement in the bill is $46 billion. Although the amendment was adopted in the Senate, there is bipartisan sentiment that the expenditure is unwarranted.

H.R. 1417 does not set a price nor mandate a number for security hires or miles of fence. Rather, it instructs the Department of Homeland Security to write a plan that Congress would approve that ensures apprehension of 90 percent of undocumented border crossers using existing methods including cameras, radar and unmanned drones within 5 years.   If H.R. 1417 were brought to the floor and passed it could form the basis for a conference with the Senate.  Senator Corker, architect of the Senate plan, has indicated openness to supporting the bill.

The House Republican strategy for dealing with the issue will likely not be clear until September. There are a number of options: leadership could still introduce their own comprehensive bill; combine a package of individual bills into one bill; pass a single bill and take it to conference with the Senate; amend the Senate bill; or simply take no action. A number of conservative Republicans clearly do not support a path to citizenship for immigrants, a position that is unacceptable for Democrats. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has repeatedly said that he will not bring a bill to the floor without the support of the majority of the Republican caucus.  It is likely a bipartisan majority for immigration reform could be achieved in the House, but less clear how it could be done if the Speaker continues to insist on a bill with a majority of House Republicans on board.

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