MATTERS: Stalemate, Solution, or Setback?
By Frank Sharry
Washington, DC: When
Congress returns just after Labor Day, it only has
five weeks left before recessing for the mid-term
elections in November. With immigration being one
of the nation’s top policy issues, will some
sort of immigration bill be enacted this year? If
so, what kind?
The debate is so volatile it’s risky to make
predictions. But I like taking chances, so here
are four possible scenarios, with my predictions
of their likelihood, from most likely in my view,
After spending the summer staging one-sided “field
hearings” aimed at bashing immigrants and
the more comprehensive Senate bill, the Republican
House leadership decides to go for a kill in September.
They approve “Sensenbrenner-lite” --
the original enforcement-only bill enacted by the
House last December but with changes to the provisions
that make undocumented immigrants and those who
assist them into felons.
The Senate, having recently passed a flawed but
unprecedented comprehensive reform bill –
one that provides more visas and a path to citizenship
for many but not all undocumented immigrants, as
well as tough and excessive enforcement measures
– criticizes the House for sticking with an
enforcement-only approach. It asserts that only
an “enforcement-plus” strategy will
work, pointing to opinion polls showing that 75
percent of the public agrees. The House stands its
ground, the Senate does the same, and the result
is a stalemate.
By deciding this summer to agitate rather than legislate
on illegal immigration, House Republican leaders
clearly hope border security/illegal immigration
will be a wedge issue that motivates otherwise despondent
conservative voters to show up at the polls in November.
My guess: House Republican leaders will decide to
stay the course right up through the mid-terms this
November. The result? Stalemate. We start from scratch
Sensenbrenner-lite sealed with a promise
The House, looking for a legislative result but
on their terms, passes a watered-down version of
the Sensenbrenner bill in September. But instead
of bucking the Senate and the president, they promise
this is but a “down payment” for a more
comprehensive approach next Congressional session.
House Democrats, fearful of looking “soft”
on illegal immigration right before the elections,
vote for the measure in droves.
This puts pressure on the Senate to “do something”
before the elections. Republicans do it in the name
of party loyalty and claim this is but a first step.
Many Democrats go along to avoid misleading but
punishing 30-second campaign ads right before the
elections. The president thanks Congress for taking
the first step and signs the “enforcement-first,
comprehensive reform next” bill into law.
Even if the House passes Sensenbrenner-lite, and
even if many House Democrats vote for it out of
fear, Republican Senators who support comprehensive
reform are unlikely to cave in. Moreover, the president
is unlikely to accept what would amount to a major
defeat for him.
Republican reformers in the Senate have shed a lot
of blood to pass the Senate bill this spring, and
they are deeply offended their House counterparts
have spent the summer criticizing them rather than
negotiating. They firmly believe that enforcement-first
is enforcement-only, and enforcement-only is bad
policy. They and the White House maintain that the
House approach is bad politics because pragmatic
swing voters want practical solutions and up-for-grabs
immigrant voters now see immigration as a defining
If this scenario unfolds, I predict Senate Republican
reformers and the White House will stay strong,
refuse to go along, and the House gets the blame
for the ensuing stalemate.
Threading the bipartisan needle towards workable
The Republican House leaders return in September
and realize their silly “field hearings”
have backfired. They become fearful that the “do-nothing”
label is sticking and decide to go for a bill. The
White House calls together Senate and House leaders
for informal negotiations.
With the Republicans deeply divided between comprehensive
reform and enforcement-only, the only way to move
a bill is to attract broad support from Democrats.
The negotiations yield a simpler bill that combines
border security measures, an expanded worker verification
system, more worker and family visas and a broader
earned path to legal status and citizenship. Though
controversial, the bill is approved by a slim margin
in the House and by a wide margin in the Senate
in October. The president happily signs it into
It would take something close to a miracle for this
scenario to happen. First, Republican House leaders
would have to decide they really want a bill, and
then would have to embrace key components of the
Senate bill they have spent the past three months
attacking. Democrats, who are in no mood to give
the Republicans a victory when they’re on
the verge of taking back control of one or both
chambers of Congress, then would have to supply
the winning margin of votes. The only way for this
dream to come true is if the Republican leadership
becomes so determined to produce a legislative result
they make an offer the Democrats can’t refuse.
Unfortunately, this is Washington, DC, not Hollywood.
Guestworker-only plus enforcement
Republican House leaders decide to go for a bill
this fall that adds an old-style “work-and-return”
guestworker program to most of the tough enforcement
measures in the original House enforcement-only
bill. They trumpet this as a “Republican version
of comprehensive reform” that says no to what
they call the Senate “amnesty” provisions,
and no to the Senate’s sensible increases
in permanent family and work visas. House leaders
convince the White House and Senate Republicans
to support this for the sake of party loyalty and
mid-term survival. Just enough Republicans support
it in both chambers get it across the finish line,
and the president signs it into law.
Not gonna happen. Republicans are simply too divided
to produce enough votes to pass a Republicans-only
version of reform. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) will
make sure enough Republicans oppose any bill with
guestworker visas, and almost no House Democrats
will vote for a guestworker-heavy bill. And even
if they did, the Senate Republican reformers would
not go along. For them, it’s simple: no path
to citizenship, no solution, therefore no deal.
So, if the most likely scenario -- a stalemate --
wins out, what then? Well, if the House remains
in Republican hands and they credit their come-from-behind
victory in November to “standing on principle”
against the president and the Senate, watch out.
The worst is yet to come.
If, on the other hand, if the House Republicans
take a beating, either by losing numerous seats
yet retaining the majority, or by losing control
to the Democrats, what then? Well, if it becomes
clear that immigrant-bashing and having no realistic
solution on immigration backfired, then the next
two-year Congressional session just might be the
time to make real progress towards the enactment
of workable comprehensive immigration reform.
On the third hand, the only safe prediction in the
immigration debate is that the future is unpredictable.
-, NEW AMERICA MEDIA