The renewed focus on Obamacare and its implementation woes may be a welcome development for most conservatives, but some opponents of the Gang of Eight immigration bill are concerned it could undermine their efforts to thwart a “grand bargain.”
Now that immigration reform is no longer the most pressing issue on Capitol Hill — government-funding talks and Obamacare opposition promise to hog the headlines in the months ahead — the Gang’s Republican supporters in the House may look to capitalize.
One specific concern is that the Gang’s supporters may attempt to use the Kids Act, a legislative proposal from House majority leader Eric Cantor that would offer a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants brought to the country as children, as the basis for a grand bargain. Additionally, the Gang’s critics worry that even a limited legalization for young illegal immigrants could give President Obama an opportunity to secure a broader legalization via executive action.
Although the bill has not been formally introduced, the Kids Act would likely resemble the DREAM Act, legislation that would provide legal status to U.S. residents who entered the country illegally before a certain age and meet certain requirements. The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing last month on the subject of so-called DREAMers, in which a number of Republicans, including committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (Va.) and Representative Trey Gowdy (S.C.), signaled support for legalizing young illegal immigrants. Passing such a bill would, in the eyes of some in the GOP, counteract accusations that Republicans are hostile to immigrants and allow Republicans to stake out a favorable middle ground between supporting the Gang of Eight bill and opposing immigration reform of any kind.
Whether or not such legislation could pass the House is an open question; a large number of Democrats may oppose it out of a belief that the immigration system can be reformed successfully only via a large, comprehensive bill.
But if the Kids Act is ultimately approved and becomes part of the package of small immigration proposals Republicans plan to put forward, and if House leaders decide to enter negotiations with the Gang of Eight, some think the act could provide a foundation for a much broader legalization bill.
Opponents have urged House leaders to refuse to enter a conference committee with the Senate, which they fear would produce a “compromise” bill almost identical to the Gang of Eight plan. However, this same outcome could occur even in the absence of a formal conference — there is nothing preventing House members from negotiating with members of the Gang of Eight behind closed doors and bringing a final deal to the floor for a vote. In fact, that is probably a more likely scenario.
Although it’s anyone’s guess what the House will be able to pass, House opponents of the Senate bill have already voiced skepticism regarding the Kids Act. Some are concerned that, if a bill legalizing young illegal immigrants is signed into law, the Obama administration would simply ignore any limitations outlined by Congress. After all, the president has already decided to essentially enact the DREAM Act by executive fiat, giving “deferred action” status — essentially legal residency, though it can be revoked — and work authorization to young illegal immigrants who qualify. (A group of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers is currently suing the administration over the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.) Since the administration began offering work permits to DREAM-eligible illegal immigrants, more than 99 percent of reviewed applications have been approved.
“How [do] you intend to prevent this administration from simply implementing your proposal in a fashion of its own choosing with no regard for Congress’ authority?” wrote Kenneth Palinkas, president of the National Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Council, in a letter to House leaders on July 30. “What is to stop the Administration from simply issuing another round of non-enforcement orders (written or oral) that would eviscerate any attempted limitations in your bill?”
USCIS, which is responsible for adjudicating millions of applications per year from immigrants seeking visas, permanent residency, or citizenship, is “in dire need of reform,” Palinkas argued, and lacks the staff and resources to carry out its responsibilities. Under the Obama administration, the agency has been “turned into an approval machine,” he writes. Offering legal status to millions of young illegal immigrants would dramatically increase the burden on USCIS employees, not least because, under current “chain migration” law, the family members of newly legalized immigrants would eventually become eligible to apply for legal status as well.
Some immigration-reform skeptics wonder if Democrats might ultimately accept a final deal that includes a path to citizenship for only DREAMers. Not only would the administration be able to enforce the legalization process as it sees fit, but Democrats could immediately open a new line of attack against Republicans for refusing to grant citizenship more broadly.
It could be that the lull of the August recess has the Gang of Eight’s opponents feeling slightly paranoid about what might happen once Congress returns, but in any event they want to make sure they won’t be caught flat-footed when the immigration debate resurfaces.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.