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How will immigration issues fare in the 112th Congress?

By Father Tom Joyce, CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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The result of last week’s midterm elections does not bode well for the immigrant. While the economy and health care may have been the issues that carried the Republicans to control of the House of Representatives, doing something to curb immigration also possessed the minds of the candidates favored by the Tea Party.

This group favored not just securing the border--as desired by even moderate Republicans--but a roll back on legal immigration entirely or in part. The new chair of the House Judiciary Committee is Lamar Smith of Texas who shepherded regressive immigration legislation through Congress in 1996. The new head of the House Immigration Committee is expected to be Steve King of Iowa who may be even more hard-nosed on immigration than Chairman Smith. (For a report on Reps. Smith and King see Arizona Republic.)

The day after the election I went to a conference sponsored by the Catholic bishop’s Campaign for Justice to the Immigrant and the Pico network of faith-based community organizations to assess the election results. The bishops' lobbyists were in from Washington and reported their projections on what to expect in the 112th Congress:

There is little or no prospect for comprehensive immigration reform; neither is there a prospect of any major roll back. The arithmetic adds up stalemate.

First off, you have a sitting Democratic president who would use his veto against any obvious anti-immigrant measure. Immigration activists are disappointed with President Barack Obama, yet the president looking toward his re-election fight in 2012 is aware how Hispanics voted last Tuesday.

In the House, there is a majority of anti-immigrant votes--some more extreme than others--but not enough to override a presidential veto. Reps. Smiths and King will push for restrictive and punitive measures, but they are not likely to get very far, since the Democrats still will control the Senate and the chairmanships of the Judiciary Committee and the Subcommittee on Immigration. There are probably 43 pro-immigrant votes in the Senate against 41 anti-immigrant and 14 swing votes. While the Republicans can propose and pass legislation in the House, they'll have a hard time getting by the Senate and will meet almost certain death by veto in the White House.

Still Reps. Smith and King can do great mischief, if the Republican leadership lets them. They would love to deny birth citizenship to children born here of documented parents, complete the wall at the border, move deportation faster, keep immigration activists at bay, and even nibble at the safety net for undocumented and legal immigrants, for example denying natal and prenatal assistance and emergency care to undocumented and legal non-citizens.

They and their allies will try to attach riders to every piece of social legislation that passes through the House. They use their powers of oversight to grill the secretaries of Homeland Security and Justice, for example on the administration's opposition to Arizona's SB1070 in the courts. It won't change the administration's course, but will tie up both secretaries and rally their troops.

Fortunately, despite election rhetoric, House leadership will tend to pull in the chairmen's reins, being mindful of how badly the GOP did with Hispanic voters. (Ironically, Hispanic GOP candidates did well--five elected to the House, two governors, and a new Senator from Florida. But they all took a hard line, or at least ambiguous line, on immigration.)

The stand-off between the House and Senate on immigration will deflect the most extreme measure for the moment--such as denying birth right citizenship, public education, pre-natal and neo-natal care and emergency care to the undocumented. But they will be hoping that after 2012 there will be someone more sympathetic to their ideas in the White House. Already ten Republican senators have asked Homeland Security to price the deporting every single undocumented from the country. We can expect a lot of talk and posturing in the new congress around immigration, if only to placate the Tea Party.

Are there possibilities for good immigration legislation? Probably not, even in the lame-duck session of this congress in late November and December. They have to pass a budget. While some Democrats might want to attach the Dream Act to an omnibus spending bill, as they tried before the elections, losing Democrats, mostly blue-dog conservative Democrats, want to go home and lick their wounds.

But the election results do assure that immigration will be a hot topic in the 112th Congress. And some Republicans are aware that demographics work against them if they repeat their 2010 performance. They'll have to come up with something that will attract Hispanic voters. 2010 shows them that it's not impossible, but the question remains of how they can do so while dealing with the Tea Party.