WASHINGTON — Advocates for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally are mounting a final push to persuade the House to pass immigration legislation this summer, seeing one last window to act that will soon slam shut for good.
If they don’t succeed by August, most say any chance of legislation will be over for the year, and all eyes will be on President Barack Obama to see if he acts on his own to curb deportations and accommodate some of the 11.5 million people here illegally.
The renewed focus on the GOP-led House comes amid chatter that immigration legislation — all but left for dead at the beginning of this year — is showing faint glimmers of life. Advocates point to recent comments by a handful of House Republicans, among them Speaker John Boehner, indicating an interest in getting it done.
Meanwhile Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., the leading proponent on the Republican side, has been trying to sell fellow Republicans on legislation he’s drafted that deals with enforcement of the laws and a legal status for those without one. He contends that after years of trying he’s struck a balance that can bring both sides on board.
“I think we finally have it right which is why I feel more optimistic than ever,” Diaz-Balart said.
Advocates note that midterm election primaries will largely be over by the end of June, freeing some House Republicans from the threat of a challenge from the right and perhaps liberating them to deal with a contentious issue like immigration.
Business lobbyists and others say they are now aiming to elevate pressure on individual House Republicans who might support overhaul efforts, or at least not publicly oppose them, with the aim of creating a swell of support that would allow Boehner the space he needs to act. Some outside lobbyists say they can count scores of House Republicans who would be with them.
The activity comes 10 months after the Senate passed bipartisan legislation with billions for border security, new visa programs to bring workers to the U.S., and a path to citizenship for the millions now here illegally. There is widespread agreement within the Republican establishment that the immigration issue has become a political drag on the GOP because of how it alienates Latinos, a fast-growing voter bloc. A wide-ranging coalition consisting of business groups, farmers, religious leaders, labor unions and others is pushing for reform.
But the same factors that have made immigration legislation a challenge from the beginning haven’t changed. For many individual House Republicans who represent largely white districts, there remains scant political imperative to act. And there is a small but vocal contingent among Republicans who oppose any effort at reform, and, egged on by some outside conservatives such as radio host Laura Ingraham, has vowed to take any step possible to oppose it.
The outsize sway of this small group was demonstrated recently when it mobilized against efforts by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., to advance legislation allowing eventual citizenship for people brought illegally to the country as youths who serve in the military.
Boehner has shown little appetite for standing down this faction, instead swiftly retreating after he made comments last week mocking House Republicans for being reluctant to act on immigration because it was too hard.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a leading conservative voice on immigration, said “there would be a civil war” if Boehner tried to move immigration. A House leadership aide said there were no plans for floor action this summer.
Meanwhile, Obama has come under intense pressure to address the issue through executive action, and his Homeland Security Department is conducting a review that could result in steps to soften the administration’s deportations policy. Advocates have hoped for some initial steps within coming weeks, although nothing major is expected until it becomes clear Boehner can’t or won’t act. If he doesn’t act by August at latest, attention will turn squarely to the administration for relief.
In a meeting today with Asian advocates and others, Obama made clear that the focus must be on Congress for now, said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., who attended.
Still, some advocates are more hopeful now than they were earlier this year after Boehner released a set of principles meant to guide action in the House, only to quickly abandon them after an unenthusiastic response from fellow Republicans.
“The people who want to do this just need to take a deep breath and do it,” said Galen Carey, vice president of government relations at the National Association of Evangelicals, which brought more than 250 pastors to Capitol Hill this week to lobby for reform.