Republicans may have to overcome fears of immigration Bill to woo Hispanic vote

Democrats want citizenship for the US’s 11 million illegal immigrants

New American citizens pose for photographs after  a recent naturalisation ceremony in New York City. House Republicans met last week to discuss moves to give status to illegal migrants. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

New American citizens pose for photographs after a recent naturalisation ceremony in New York City. House Republicans met last week to discuss moves to give status to illegal migrants. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images


Democrats and Republicans are entrenched on most political issues in a deeply divided US Congress but one issue that is drawing them out of their foxholes is the long-running battle for immigration reform.

A cross-party Bill crafted in the Democrat-led Senate that would mark the biggest overhaul of immigration law in a generation has faltered in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Republicans fear the Bill offers an amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants by putting them on a path to citizenship, rewarding people who have flouted US law by living illegally in the country for years.

House Republicans met last week for their annual retreat in Maryland to discuss this hot topic, knowing that, at a national level at least, they have to grasp this nettle if they are ever to win back the increasingly influential Hispanic vote and wrestle the White House from the Democrats in 2016.

John Boehner, the Speaker of the House and a Republican from Ohio, issued a one-page set of immigration principles trying to sell the idea to his party, most of whom are still cool on the idea. He argued that immigration reform was necessary to create jobs, for the economy and for national security.

Possible compromise
The principles go nowhere near the wide-ranging reforms envisaged in the Senate Bill – few outside Congress would ever expect a House pushed and pulled by the far-right Republican Tea Party faction to back immigration reform so comprehensively – but they do open the door for possible compromise.

Boehner’s principles prioritise stronger border security and interior enforcement of immigration violations first. They then offer “legal status” to the 11 million so-called undocumented immigrants, including thousands of Irish, once certain conditions are met including passing background checks, paying significant fines and back taxes, and showing proof they can live without public benefits.

To many Democrats, anything less than a promise of creating a clear path to full citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants, which could take up to 13 years under the Senate Bill, would create a second class of American citizens and make this a politically unacceptable half-measure.

During these dysfunctional times in Washington politics, when both parties can find little agreement in such a hostile environment, a shift in policy position, however slight, can encourage co-operation.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, speaking on Sunday talk show NBC’s Meet The Press, said Boehner’s principles represented “pretty good progress”.

Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York and a strong advocate of the proposed 10,500-a-year “E3” visas for new Irish immigrants, said that an agreement was a “real possibility” if House Republicans embraced Boehner’s principles.

Congressman Richard Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts, says that “a path to normalisation” and tighter border controls may be compromises his party have to accept if Republicans aren’t willing to offer a path to citizenship. He noted that the president himself has lowered his expectations.

“The chances of immigration reform passing have probably increased to 60:40 for,” said Neal. “The battle that is taking place is between John Boehner and the base of the Republican Party. ”

In the aftermath of the botched rollout of Obama’s signature healthcare law, Republicans are sceptical of any comprehensive package of legislation and equally wary of the president’s aim to force policy change through by executive action as he threatened in last month’s state of the union speech.

These concerns fall on existing internal divisions among Republicans. Roughly one-third of House Republicans support the party’s leadership on plans to introduce immigration reform, another third are politically undecided but know the merits of tackling this electorally sensitive issue and a final third, populated mostly by hard-right Tea Party members, are implacably opposed to any kind of reform.

“The challenge for the leadership is demonstrating to the undecided third they have a politically sound pathway to a limited set of reforms so that they don’t come back to bite them,” said Manus Cooney, a former adviser to a Republican senator and a Washington lobbyist.

The Republican leadership knows it has to attempt something. It may be complicated to secure a deal ahead of November’s mid-term elections when political control of the Senate and House will be decided and when members face possible challenges from more conservative primary candidates.

Pushed back to future
Some Republicans believe that no immigration Bill can pass in 2014. Yesterday, the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky said he did not see it happening this year because of “irresolvable” differences between the Senate, which wants a comprehensive Bill running to more than 1,200 pages, and the House, which wants to reform the legislation step by step.

However, in the end pragmatism may prevail. “The Republicans realise they need to get immigration dealt with – they cannot wish it away because it is not going away,” said Ciaran Staunton, co-founder of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform.

“They cannot win in 2016 without sorting it and they may not even win the House without it.”