Resurgent GOP to get tough on immigration, but change unlikely

During his campaign for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama made the now-broken promise to Latino supporters that he would pass comprehensive immigration reform in his first year as president. But in remarks to the press on Wednesday, after Republicans took control of the House and won back several seats in the Senate, talk of immigration reform was noticeably absent.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is expected to push for heavy immigration enforcement as chairman of the House immigration subcommittee next session. (Tina Fultz/ZUMApress.com)

Democrats will still hold a majority in both chambers during the lame-duck session, when leaders hope to pass the DREAM Act to give some undocumented young people and military service members legal status. But after January, immigration reform efforts that include paths to legal status for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States seem next to impossible, meaning the next few years will see little progress for immigration reform advocates.

“The new leaders of the House have made it clear that they’re going to continue to push an enforcement-only strategy,” said Mary Giovagnoli, director of pro-reform Immigration Policy Center. “It’s going to be a hard couple of years.”

The Republicans ushered into power in the midterms favor tight border security, strict enforcement and policies that would allow states, along with the federal government, to police immigration. Many campaigned on hard-line immigration positions that cost them support among Latinos, but won backing from the broad segments of the population that approve of illegal immigration crackdowns like Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law.

In short, Republicans who won on Tuesday hold radically different views on tackling illegal immigration from the president and Senate Democrats. Prospects are bleak for anyone who hopes to see meaningful change on immigration policy: A Democratic Senate will have trouble getting immigrant-friendly measures past the House, while the House will have trouble getting enforcement-only measures past the Senate — or the president’s desk. The result will likely be more of the same on immigration policy.

There are a few areas where Republicans have brought forth proposals to reform the immigration system. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who is expected to take over as chairman of the House’s immigration subcommittee, plans use his leadership position to call in Obama administration officials and question them on immigration enforcement, claiming “they’re not enforcing the laws.”

It’s a common argument from Republicans, who have repeatedly accused the Obama administration of taking a lax approach. After reports that immigration courts were throwing out deportation cases for illegal immigrants who were deemed non-dangerous or had pending citizenship applications, the seven current Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano demanding to know how much it would cost to find and deport every illegal immigrant in the country.

“[Immigration and Customs Enforcement] has cited a lack of resources as one of the reasons for its prioritization of cases and for its selective enforcement,” the Oct. 21 letter reads. “But to date, we have not seen any efforts by ICE, your Department, or the Administration to request an increase in ICE funding. … As a result, it appears that your Department is doing the very thing that we have raised concerns about in several letters – allowing illegal aliens to evade the law.”

If Republicans attempt to force increased immigration enforcement, it would require a huge increase in funding for ICE. The agency currently receives $2.6 billion from Congress each year to detain and remove illegal immigrants. ICE Chief John Morton says this budget allows the agency to deport about 400,000 people per year — a number it approaching this year. Deporting the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, then, could cost as much as $70 billion.

Of course, most Republicans don’t advocate a deportation-only method to decreasing illegal immigration numbers in the country. GOP members also say they hope to pass legislation to eliminate possible incentives for foreigners to stay in the country by cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, eliminating the few social services illegal immigrants can receive and in some cases even eliminating citizenship for children born in the country to undocumented parents.

A GOP-led initiative to end birthright citizenship for U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants under the 14th Amendment received support from 95 House members in 2009, although the bill never made it out of committee. Instead of attempting to amend the Constitution, the bill would create a statute limiting citizenship to children with at least one parent in the country legally.

King plans to push for the bill again in the next session of Congress, where support for the measure will be even stronger. King insists the bill is both legal and necessary to stop the “anchor baby” phenomenon — the idea that illegal immigrants come to America and have children in order to gain legal status — which most immigration experts agree does not exist because citizens cannot petition for legal status for their families until they are adults.

Expanding E-Verify, a controversial program that allows employers to check the immigration status of potential employees, is another likely priority for the Republican-led House. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who is expected to head the Judiciary Committee, co-sponsored a bill to make use of E-Verify mandatory for all employers. (Federal agencies and contractors are already required to use the program.)

Of course, House Republicans cannot enact any laws without the support of Obama or the Democratic-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is unlikely to risk angering Latino voters by passing enforcement-only immigration measures. But even if it means gridlock, House leaders seem committed to blocking comprehensive immigration reform.

“The best solution to the problem of illegal immigration is to enforce current laws,” Smith told the Chicago Tribune last week. “Attrition through enforcement can reduce the number of illegal immigrants already in the U.S.”

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Elise Foley

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