How Will Republican Leadership Play their Cards on Immigration?

The predictions are already rolling in that the 112th Congress will get little done, each party miring themselves in partisan differences with the goal of a White House win in 2012. The thought of gridlock on so many pressing issues facing the country—fiscal policy, stimulating the economy, ensuring job growth—is sobering. And two more years of inaction on immigration reform—reform that would help our economy grow and respects the rights of people—well, that’s simply depressing. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If Speaker-elect John Boehner is really interested in governing, he will think long and hard about the direction he allows the House to go on immigration.

The next Speaker faces a challenge—does he allow immigration hardliners to pummel the Administration to score points with Tea Partiers and other parts of the Republican base and allow them to set an agenda that goes against Republican interests for the 2012 election? Or, does he realize that immigration is one of the truly bipartisan issues out there, where resolving our immigration crisis in a rational way is not only possible, but good for both parties?

While House Republican leadership hasn’t yet said how they will approach the issue, doing nothing to rein in long-time restrictionist congressmen will likely lead their party astray. For years now, Republicans in the House Judiciary Committee have cultivated a get-tough, restrictionist approach to immigration embodied by ranking member Lamar Smith and echoed by his colleague Steve King. Both have repeatedly pushed the immigration issue to the far right, and King has made some notoriously uncivil statements about immigrants. Congressman Smith has already announced that he will be the next Judiciary Chair and that immigration will be his top priority. It’s assumed that Congressman King will become his Immigration Subcommittee chair. But those positions of leadership mean they no longer have the luxury of playing the outsider knocking on the door. Changing the tone and tenor of the debate has to come from the leadership most responsible for it, or it won’t come at all.

So the question really will be whether the new Speaker of the House wants to encourage the kind of theatrics on immigration that will likely come about if there is no voice of moderation. In an essay written back in September, Congressman Smith pinned all the blame for our crumbling immigration system on President Obama’s unwillingness to enforce the law. Just this week, Congressman Smith said that “attrition through enforcement,” a phrase popularized by the restrictionist organization Center for Immigration Studies and embedded in the Arizona law, has got to be the solution to our immigration mess. Ironically, Congressman Smith was the architect of many of the changes to our immigration law back in 1996 that have accelerated today’s crisis. His changes under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, signed by President Clinton, were all aimed at making our laws tougher in order to end illegal immigration; these changes have failed, and in fact have backfired, creating punitive laws without the discretion necessary to administer a system that is both fair and safe.

The good Congressman also loves oversight hearings and he will no doubt require DHS and DOJ officials to repeatedly explain their decisions, using these hearings as a platform to promote ideas on immigration reform that are out of step with the mainstream. Popular among the fringe, no doubt, but not with mainstream Americans or key electoral groups including Latinos. Many are already predicting that winning the White House will be impossible without capturing wider demographic groups. Thus, an immigration policy that goes beyond the Tea Party is essential.

In a Washington Post editorial today, columnist Edward Schumacher-Matos urged Speaker-elect John Boehner to turn down the hateful rhetoric and steer away from restrictive immigration measures that have long characterized the Republican approach to immigration:

And so I beg you, Mr. Boehner, not only out of party self-interest but out of concern for national peace, to get your party to tone down the rhetoric. Yes, the illegality has to end, and new enforcement systems are in place. It is now up to you to help constructively integrate even the illegal immigrants here in a way that best benefits our great country.

Will the new leadership in the House recognize that furthering an immigration agenda that polarizes the country is a bad idea? The gentleman from Ohio will have to decide.

Photo by Ross Elliott.

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