On Thursday morning at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., Illinois representative Luis Gutierrez sat down with Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to discuss the prospects of immigration legislation, particularly the legalization of current illegal immigrants and the expansion of guest-worker programs. In the course of this discussion, the Illinois congressman said that Speaker John Boehner’s distrust of Republican voters was causing the House to wait until after primary season to take up immigration legislation.
One of the leading Democratic advocates for the president’s vision of immigration “reform,” Representative Gutierrez expressed great confidence that something would happen on immigration law — either that Congress would pass a major reform or that President Obama would take executive action to change the nation’s immigration policies. Representative Gutierrez said that he would prefer that Congress pass a bill, and claimed that 25–30 House Republicans would be willing to back some kind of “comprehensive reform.” He also said that some key Republicans House members were working behind closed doors to rally support for a big immigration package. The only Republican he was willing to name was Florida representative Mario Diaz-Balart, but he claimed that there were others, too.
The Illinois congressman did acknowledge, however, the existence of some skepticism among the Republican base about passing a large guest-worker and legalization package. That skepticism may be troubling Republican leaders, and Representative Gutierrez argued that House leadership distrusted the average Republican voter. He said, “When I hear Speaker Boehner say, ‘Oh we don’t just trust the president’ . . . it’s not about you don’t trust the president. You don’t trust your primary voters when you have to go for reelection.”
Representative Gutierrez expressed his hope that, once GOP members of the House are no longer accountable to primary voters later in the summer, they will be able to work with Democrats to push through an immigration package. He projected that June and July would be the key window for passing immigration legislation.
Representative Gutierrez’s comments pose two challenges for those House Republicans who are open to President Obama’s immigration agenda. On a policy level, the continued emphasis on the president’s capacity to unilaterally ignore or re-write immigration policies might raise serious doubts about how feasible the trade of legalization for enforcement might be.
On a political level, fostering the notion that House Republicans do not trust Republican voters could significantly depress turnout. If GOP leaders do wait until after primary season to ram through a flawed immigration bill, the fact they did wait could easily become part of the media narrative and spread throughout the grassroots infrastructure. Even if many House members live safely in gerrymandered districts, there are numerous close Senate races ahead in November. The sight of major GOP figures working to help President Obama realize a key second-term priority might alienate a number of Republican and independent voters.
Representative Gutierrez’s comments suggest how Democrats could use the passage of the White House’s immigration agenda to split the Republican party and minimize its chances of victory in the November midterms — even as the long-term effects of passing a bill in basic agreement with the Senate immigration bill could damage the working and middle classes and Republicans’ standing with both groups.