The Piecemeal Movement

by Andrew Stiles
Democrats are now open to a more gradual approach to immigration, but risks remain.

Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) isn’t the only member of the Gang of Eight talking about a piecemeal approach to immigration reform, which appears to be the preference of House Republicans.

Even Democrats who once insisted that anything less than a large, comprehensive bill was a nonstarter are beginning show signs of flexibility. “I don’t like that approach but it may be the only approach,” Senator Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), referring to the idea of multiple bills, told Politico on Wednesday.

Earlier this week, Rubio shocked many observers by appearing to disavow the Gang of Eight bill, calling for a step-by-step approach in the House and even coming out against the procedural maneuvering that could lead to a conference committee, which most conservatives strongly oppose.

Although Rubio’s announcement was politically significant and garnered a lot of attention, it may not have much impact on the immigration-reform debate. Many supporters of the Gang of Eight bill think it won’t.

So does Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), who said back in August that he would not oppose a step-by-step approach in the House, which would likely involve passing a series of individual bills focusing on issues such as border security, interior enforcement, guest-worker visas, and, potentially, a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

“We would much prefer a big comprehensive bill, but any way that the House can get there is okay by us,” Schumer told CNN, noting that the House Judiciary Committee had already approved a number of bills that are “very similar” to corresponding provisions in the Gang of Eight legislation.

Even President Obama has said he was open to a piecemeal approach on immigration reform, telling Telemundo in September, “I’m less concerned about process, I’m more interested in making sure it gets done.”

The catch: Schumer and Obama both insist that any final product passed by both houses must include a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a controversial provision that many House Republicans oppose — at the very least, they would prefer that border-security and enforcement legislation be signed into law before legal status is granted to any illegal immigrants.

Moreover, opponents of the Gang of Eight bill are not convinced that Democratic acquiescence to a piecemeal approach in any way dampens the prospects that Congress will ultimately pass some form of comprehensive immigration reform. In fact, they have been trying for weeks, without success, to get a commitment from House leadership not to enter into a conference committee with the Senate bill.

Some conservatives fear that even if the House approves a single piece of immigration legislation, it could be used as a vehicle to enter a conference committee, the end result of which could be a comprehensive package resembling the Gang of Eight plan. For example, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) has already incorporated a border-security bill sponsored by Representatives Mike McCaul (R., Texas) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas), and unanimously approved by the judiciary committee, into House Democrats’ version of the Gang of Eight bill. Meanwhile, immigration activists have signaled a willingness to accept a final package that stops short of offering citizenship to all illegal immigrants, meaning that GOP legislation currently in the works, such as the KIDS Act, which would offer citizenship to younger immigrants brought to the country as children, could serve as the basis for a deal.  

Representative Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.) has relayed assurances from Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) that the House will go to conference only on individual pieces of legislation passed by the House and sent over to the Senate (which could be necessary if the Senate passes them with substantial amendments). Boehner has also explicitly said that any final package coming out of a conference committee must have majority support within the GOP conference to receive a vote on the floor.

Yet the message from House leadership, which says it considers immigration reform a “priority,” remains muddled, with reports that the House will not consider immigration-reform legislation before the end of the year, and statements by Republican congressmen such as Trent Franks (R., Ariz.) and Jeff Denham (R., Calif.) to the opposite effect.

Republicans are increasingly distrustful of the Obama administration, and their skepticism of a comprehensive bill has only been enhanced by the disastrous rollout of the president’s health-care overhaul. But even within their own party, reform skeptics will face considerable pressure from deep-pocketed interest groups to act on immigration, and soon.   

Representative Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), who has drawn criticism from Gang of Eight opponents, recently spoke to the apprehensions many conservatives have about immigration reform. In an interview with Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, he said that “it is better to not produce any bill than to produce a bad bill, and Obamacare should be the lesson for that.”

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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