Senate and House members still pushing immigration reform

Immigration reform could be one of the first bizarre by-products of the government shutdown, according to Brookings Institution senior analyst Jill Wilson.
By Catherine Brzycki -- Medill News Service  |  Oct. 2, 2013 at 5:06 PM
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WASHINGTON -- Despite the federal government shutdown, reform-minded lawmakers said this week they remain hopeful that an immigration bill will become law, adding their voices to national pressure to get legislation through the House of Representatives.

The shutdown, over the long haul, could actually work to the benefit of the stalled bill, some proponents argue. On Tuesday, members of the Senate and House respective “Gangs of Eight” spoke at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual policy conference, highlighting bi-partisan efforts to promote a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who meet requirements of the proposed law.

The immigration bill, titled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, was approved by the Senate in late June. It details comprehensive steps to full legal status for the millions of law-abiding immigrants who live and work in the United States. While momentum for the legislation has slowed to a virtual halt, some lawmakers seemed hopeful of eventual passage in the U.S. House.

And some policy experts believe the shutdown will even help move legislation through the House. According to Jill Wilson, a senior policy expert with the Brookings Institution, the reasons are two-fold.

“With the shutdown now grabbing all the headlines, it could be seen as another chance for Republicans to use it as an excuse not to do anything with immigration.”

A joint CNN and Opinion Research Corp. poll released Monday morning showed Americans place blame primarily on Republicans -- not only for the shutdown but also for a looming debt ceiling crisis.

“Secondly, all the focus being on the shutdown and the debt ceiling could give the House a little more breathing room and move on immigration behind the scenes,” said Wilson.

In the meantime, the push for immigration reform appears to be heating up with marches planned in more than 130 cities on a National Day of Action for Dignity & Respect on Saturday. A major rally in Washington is planned for Oct. 8 with the aim of persuading the House to once again tackle the immigration issue.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Tuesday that failure to approve an immigration bill could have political ramifications for the Republican Party. “If we don’t pass this,” he said, “we lose the Hispanic voter.” McCain was the sole Republican senator present at the Hispanic Institute event.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who is regarded as the leader of the Senate’s so-called Gang of Eight, said the “reform bill will give to literally millions of dreamers the chance to become part of America’s future as citizens of the United States of America.”

Sen. Durbin, along with McCain and Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., spoke for the Senate side.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently analyzed the pending immigration legislation and found that the bill could carry positive economic outcomes.

The CBO believes the bill will cut annual deficits by $900 billion dollars over the next 10 years. According to the findings, 121,000 jobs a year will be added for the next 10 years totaling around 1.2 million jobs.

“The benefits are going to be far reaching,” said Wilson. “It really affects every corner of the country.”

In the House, Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart is the only Republican remaining in the pro-immigration reform group. Three others left over the course of the summer: Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Texas Reps. John Carter and Sam Johnson.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., expressed urgency of the bill’s passage even with a government shutdown, “I believe that today, right now, the votes exist to pass comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship in the House of Representatives, so we must strike now.”

House members Diaz-Balart, Becerra, Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., , John Yarmuth, D-Ky., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., all attended the Hispanic Caucus’s event. Rep. Diaz-Balart said he believes the immigration bill has enough votes to pass in the Republican-controlled House.

Opponents of the bill insist it amounts to “amnesty” for millions of immigrants who crossed into this country illegally.

“Many of these 11 million ‘illegal aliens’ who would be allowed to stay have not only broken immigration laws, they have broken laws to remain in the country,” said Kristen Williamson, spokeswoman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, a national, nonprofit organization opposing the immigration bill. “Those are laws that, if an American broke, they would be held accountable.”

But Brookings’ Wilson contends this is an earned path, citing stipulations in the legislation requiring that immigrants have no criminal background and learn English to get on the “pathway to citizenship.”

Diaz-Balart said during the panel discussion that many immigrants “are folks that will do jobs that Americans won’t do. We have to fix a system that is absolutely broken for our national security interests and economic interests.”

“I am as optimistic now as I was six months, five months, four months ago, said Diaz-Balart, at the panel discussion Tuesday. “We’re going to have good days and bad days. I think we have a very good opportunity to get it done.”

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