Politics & Policy

The Real Congressional Immigration Showdown Will Happen in 2017

Immigration reform rally on Capitol Hill, April 2013 (Alex Wong/Getty)
No sweeping reform bill will pass in this Congress. The next one is a different story.

Immigration politics remain a deep source of friction in the House Republican caucus. One of the reasons for this friction is that immigration touches on a host of issues central to debates about conservatism in the 21st century. Among these issues are the role of the nation-state, the place of economic narratives for republican well-being, whether to accept or confront escalating socioeconomic stratification, the role of business interests in crafting government policy, the fiscal and moral sustainability of the welfare state, and other topics.

Immigration politics helped bring down Eric Cantor and certainly didn’t help Kevin McCarthy’s bid for the speakership. They have also added obstacles to Paul Ryan’s path to the speaker’s chair. Congressman Ryan is a multi-decade veteran of the nation’s immigration debates, and many center-right activists are highly skeptical about his record on this issue.

Because of this grassroots skepticism, Congressman Ryan has reportedly implied that he would not support bringing an immigration bill to the floor in 2016 and would instead focus on “the things on which the conference is in agreement, like border security and internal enforcement, as opposed to a comprehensive bill.” Deciding to focus on more targeted and broadly popular reforms is both smart politics and smart policy.

RELATED: Would a Speaker Ryan Push Through Amnesty?

However, it seems unlikely that any “comprehensive bill” would make it through Congress in 2016 no matter what. It’s hard to see how the Senate would get to 60 votes on a “comprehensive” immigration bill in 2016. Not only is it an election year, but many of the Democrats who supported the Gang of Eight bill lost in 2014, and a number of Republicans who supported it are up for reelection in November 2016. The Senate’s likely inability to pass an immigration bill for the rest of the Obama presidency makes the House’s refusal to pass a flawed immigration bill less important.

#share#But the picture looks different for 2017. The Gang of Eight’s legislative descendant may currently be gestating, waiting to spring from the womb with a new administration. It would be easy to see a number (though not all) of current Republican and Democratic presidential candidates attempting to revive instant legalization and expanded guest-worker programs if the mood in Congress is right. It would also be possible to see the Senate pass such a bill in 2017–18, and that possibility increases if the filibuster is nuked. In a legislative discussion about immigration, House Republican leadership would probably have a major role to play.

#related#So, when thinking about whom to support for speaker, House Republicans interested in immigration should think beyond 2016. Republican reformers on immigration should not just be about stopping a flawed Beltway consensus that weds corporate cronyism to divisive identity politics, but should also work to advance an immigration policy that strengthens the average American worker, offers real hopes of integration, and celebrates an inclusive, cooperative vision of public life.

If Republicans are going to cast their votes based on a candidate for speaker’s commitments on immigration, they would be wise to look beyond the horizon of the Obama administration and ensure that the caucus will maintain its ability to keep its leadership in line with forward-looking conservative values.

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