GOP will rue killing immigration reform

Conservative Republicans think the immigration issue has turned to their benefit, removing even the slim prospects for any action this year. If they’re right, it’s only for the short term.

Vocal Republicans blame the Obama administration for creating a mini-crisis with the recent surge of children who have come across the southwestern border from Central America. It’s the latest rationale of a determined bloc of House Republicans for killing a Senate-passed immigration reform bill — led by Republican John McCain and Democrat Chuck Schumer — that provided a lengthy pathway to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants. The longer-term situation is unchanged, and will only get worse. The uncertainty over a broken immigration system will persist, further frustrating U.S. businesses and taking a toll on the economy.

Politically, this probably will strengthen the Democrats’ hold on the fast-growing Hispanic and Asian-American populations. The last time Washington failed to act on immigration reform, in 2007, Democrats, including then-Sen. Obama, as well as Republicans, helped sabotage a measure advocated by President George W. Bush and Senators McCain and Edward M. Kennedy.

This time, the opponents are Republicans. There are about 250 votes in the House to pass the Senate bill now, but most of those are Democrats, and Speaker John Boehner won’t consider a measure opposed by the majority of his caucus. For much of the year, Republicans, trying to escape blame for scuttling a measure, have said passage would be impossible because of the lax border policies of President Obama’s administration.

In fact, the budget for border security has increased more than 50 percent in the past five years, and there are almost 4,000 more agents.

These critics got new ammunition this year when a surge of unaccompanied kids, mainly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, began coming over illegally. Republicans attributed the influx to Obama’s decision two years ago to provide work permits to the so-called Dreamers: immigrants who had come as children with their families before 2012 and had been living in the United States for at least five years, were enrolled in school and hadn’t had any criminal violations.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said that policy created “a real magnet” for the latest surge of children, who thought they would be able to get citizenship if they made it across the border. The Dreamers measure doesn’t affect citizenship.

Other facts undercut Issa’s case. The vast majority of these kids are from those three Central American countries where the murder rates are among the five highest in the world. It may be a human crisis when 90,000 of these kids try to get to the United States in 2014, but that number represents only a little more than 10 percent of the illegal crossings a decade ago.

To be sure, some smugglers falsely tell these children they can get work permits in the United States, but it’s the conditions in their countries of origin that provide the incentive for these kids to make the journey, far more than a 2-year-old administrative action. Moreover, as Schumer and McCain note, the Senate-approved immigration measure, which contains billions more for enforcement and adjudication, would make it much easier to deal with the surge.

The other objective of anti-immigration forces is to keep Obama from taking other executive actions, such as allowing more prosecutorial discretion in immigration cases and modestly expanding the Dreamers program. They may succeed here because even some Democrats caution against doing much in the current climate.

Looking ahead, right-wing Republicans dismiss the warnings of McCain and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Tom Donohue that the party will forfeit the 2016 presidential race if it deep-sixes immigration reform. Opponents might consult the last Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, the leading immigration-basher during the primaries, who tried to pivot and finesse the issue in the general election. Hispanic and Asian voters had longer memories, and overwhelmingly turned out against him.

Albert R. Hunt, a Bloomberg View columnist, hosts the weekly television show “Political Capital with Al Hunt.”

© 2014, Bloomberg News

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