Supporters of the Gang of Eight immigration-reform bill were dealt a blow last week, with the announcement that the Senate gang’s House counterpart was breaking up. And although the Gang’s opponents remain vigilant, the conventional wisdom suggests that President Obama is unlikely to sign an immigration-reform bill into law this year.
Perhaps in an effort to remain optimistic, proponents of the Senate bill have turned to an unlikely figure: Representative Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. As immigration reform has faded out of the news cycle, the Gang of Eight’s chief backers in Congress are no longer pressing the issue in public, even as powerful interest groups such as the Chamber of Commerce continue to lobby Republicans behind the scenes. Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) has been uncharacteristically quiet. Goodlatte has emerged as something of a lone voice in Congress keeping the debate alive.
He recently signaled his desire, for example, to bring a series of immigration bills to the House floor as early as next month, including one that would potentially grant legal status to illegal immigrants and allow them to apply for citizenship through existing channels, as opposed to providing a “special pathway.” Younger illegal immigrants who meet certain qualifications (so-called DREAMers) would be able to pursue a more streamlined path to citizenship.
Gang of Eight skeptics are concerned that such a bill, which is still in the works but has the backing of House majority leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.), could eventually serve as the basis for a bicameral conference committee that would inevitably result in a “compromise” closely resembling the Senate bill. “Something strange is going on here,” says a GOP aide opposed to the Senate bill, noting that Goodlatte’s current messaging “could turn into reality at the blink of an eye.”
Meanwhile, many immigration-reform activists on the left have said they would oppose a Republican plan that offers anything less than a full pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, on the grounds that such a plan would create a “permanent underclass of workers,” in the words of AFL-CIO campaign manager Tom Snyder.
This opposition, though, may be waning, out of a desire to get a result. Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, a prominent backer of the Gang of Eight bill, said recently he could support a final bill that would have illegal immigrants apply for citizenship through existing channels (after receiving legal status), provided Congress also increased the number of green cards available. Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum told the Wall Street Journal that illegal immigrants should be given “an opportunity for citizenship,” and he suggested that this goal might be reached by giving illegal immigrants access to the existing green-card process.
To Gang of Eight opponents, this newfound flexibility on a pathway to citizenship suggests that it’s too early to pronounce a comprehensive immigration bill dead. If the House passed legislation that included some kind of pathway to citizenship, it would alter the political landscape. Public pressure and media scrutiny would refocus on the push for a comprehensive reform bill, and we’d see breathless headlines about immigration reform’s return from the dead.
The prospect that the Goodlatte legislation will pass in the House could explain why House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) has been telling immigration-reform activists — in private — that the issue is still on the House agenda. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) has said he is optimistic about the chances of going to conference with the Senate. In such a scenario, there could be sufficient support within the Republican-party establishment and donor class to push an immigration bill across the finish line, even if the GOP’s voting base objects.
In such a scenario, trying to counter the powerful interests aligned in favor of a comprehensive bill would be akin to “holding up an anvil with a thread,” one GOP aide says. “There’s a huge amount of weight on the other end of that line.”
UPDATE: A House Judiciary Committee aide rejected the notion that Goodlatte was aiding the Gang of Eight’s efforts, and reiterated his opposition to the Senate bill.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.