Who Killed Immigration Reform?

Coming out of the House Republican Conference retreat in late January, it seemed as if the House leadership was preparing to move on immigration reform. They had been under pressure to move on that front for a while and had taken steps toward that end at the retreat. A document containing the GOP “principles” on immigration reform was released, and it immediately drew criticism from conservative pundits.

The Washington Examiner’s Byron York took the document to task on its statement regarding “enforcement triggers.” York dissected the document which contains “the standard talk about how the U.S. immigration system is ‘broken.’ There are calls for more border enforcement. More interior enforcement, like employment verification and an entry-exit visa system. Provisions for guest workers. Special consideration of young immigrants… [And] there are by-now familiar guidelines for the handling of the 11or 12 million immigrants in the country illegally. ‘These persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S.,’ the principles say, ‘but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits).’”

While those are issues that have already been discussed, York asserts that “the future of immigration reform in Congress depends on whether Republican leaders mean what they say” when they wrote in the document that “none of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented.” Whether these triggers are before or after legalization, and what those triggers were, exactly, would ultimately determine the potential of a bill’s passing.

The truth is that we have a pretty good idea how those triggers would be measured. Back in June, I wrote (“Real Immigration Reform,” June 16, 2013) about an interview Rep. Paul Ryan gave to talk radio host Mark Levin about how the House immigration plan differed from the Senate bill. Ryan’s plan was to grant probationary legal status, and will have to meet “specific objective metrics that will be measured by the GAO (General Accountability Office) and border officials from border states, and will need to be satisfied before illegals can begin the process of obtaining a green card, and ultimately citizenship. These include having an E-Verify system up and running, specific numbers of border patrol agents that need to be hired, operational drones, and a fence that needs to be built. According to Ryan, if the border triggers aren’t met within three years, and the E-Verify system within five, the probationary legal status will be revoked.”

Ryan is one of the members of House leadership who is very invested in making a move on the immigration front; it’s safe to assume that the same triggers he described in June would be in the current iteration of a reform bill.

In any event, after the release of the “principles,” the backlash from the greater conservative movement was too great to move on this front. Discussion then turned to what it always does in such cases: figuring out whom to blame.

As could have been predicted, most of the finger-pointing was directed in the direction of Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Stuart Powell reported that House Republicans who supported the plan said that it was “dead on arrival because Cruz blasted it as ‘amnesty,’ spurring a blizzard of negative phone calls to House Republicans.”

The only thing sillier than blaming everything that goes wrong with the congressional Republicans on Senator Cruz is not realizing what you are in effect saying. Cruz never forces members to do anything; what he does (and does well) is make noise, and shake things up. Leadership overreacting to what Cruz does is not in any way Cruz’s fault.

Take, for example, the “Defund” effort. Cruz staged his “filibuster” and engaged in a PR campaign to push it. In the end, the House GOP leaders blinked — and caved to Cruz. They shouldn’t have — but does that make it Cruz’s fault?

If Republicans fear being called “squishes” by Cruz to the extent that they will bend to whatever he demands, then they are kind of making the case for him. The only power Cruz really has is to expose members of Congress who would rather do things that would not be noticed. And it seems that they’ve realized this of late, and have begun strategizing without worrying about how Cruz would react (see budget deal, debt ceiling). In light of House members’ newfound backbones when it comes to defying Cruz, the assertion that his calling the immigration proposal “amnesty” being the main reason they wouldn’t rally behind it seems utterly preposterous.

The truth is that the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of another young Hispanic senator with presidential ambitions. I am referring, of course, to Marco Rubio.

It may seem weird to blame the conservative champion of the Senate’s immigration reform for the demise of the House bill. But there are a few realities that are now on the ground due to the disaster the Senate bill ended up being. Rubio himself, despite pushing it, and voting for it, has become a vocal critic of his very own bill. In interviews with various conservative media personalities since the bill passed, Rubio said things such as, “I don’t want to leave the border plan up to the Department of Homeland Security and Janet Napolitano. That is a mistake that is in the current bill.” (to Ed Morissey) and “you just have a tremendous amount of mistrust that no matter what you write into law, this administration will ignore it and enforce the parts they like and ignore the parts they don’t. And that has set this whole effort back in a way that may be insurmountable.”

But the criticism Rubio has leveled against his bill are immaterial to the House bill. Ryan stated that it wouldn’t be the Secretary of DHS who would make the determinations; rather, the GAO would be based on “specific objective metrics.” So why would conservatives jump to oppose this bill?

There’s an old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” When Senator Rubio was selling his bill in January of 2013 he made the rounds on talk radio making the conservative case for supporting it. He described enforcement triggers that would be dependent on a commission “comprised of governors, attorneys general, and community leaders living along the Southwest border to monitor the progress of securing our border and to make a recommendation regarding when the bill’s security measures outlined in the legislation are completed.” This led to Mark Levin describing the Rubio plan as “more conservative than the … bill … Reagan signed.”

But the final version of the bill looked nothing like that. The “enforcement triggers” turned out to be a red herring — aimed at distracting conservative opposition while an open-ended amnesty bill sailed through the Senate. And while it was successful then, what it left behind was a sense of betrayal and mistrust when it comes to immigration. And until that is rectified, there will likely never be immigration reform.

And we have Marco Rubio to blame/thank for that.