If you follow immigration, but are returning from a month-long, news-free vacation, there’s only one conclusion you would draw from the legislation Republicans offered up this week in Congress: Mitt Romney must have won the presidential election. After all, the ACHIEVE Act, introduced yesterday by retiring Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), which offers temporary legal status but no path to citizenship to DREAMers, is surely the bill they were preparing to offer in the event that a Romney Administration was in the wings. And on the House side, a slightly revised version of the STEM Jobs Act—which failed on the suspension calendar before the election—is back on the floor at the end of this week without changing any of the problems that led to its defeat before. Surely, this suggests that the predictions that immigration would play a decisive role in the presidential election didn’t pan out and that self-deportation as an immigration reform strategy worked. Except, none of this is true.
The introduction of ACHIEVE and the rebirth of the STEM Jobs Act have both been met with incredulity. Leaders of United We DREAM, who flirted with Marco Rubio over a similar short-term solution before the election, are adamantly opposed to ACHIEVE, arguing that they will settle for nothing less than full citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The New York Times issued a blistering critique of the new/old STEM bill, chastising House leadership for offering short-sighted, punitive, “zero sum” politics instead of real immigration reform. Even groups that support the most laudable part of the STEM bill—increasing the number of green cards for foreign advanced degree graduates of American universities—are keeping strangely quiet, keenly aware that Smith’s STEM bill won’t have a chance in the Senate.
Ironically, Congressman Smith’s bill at least acknowledges the change in political fortunes by including a limited family unity provision for some people in the massive immigration backlog. That provision is marred, however, by unnecessary restrictions, including the denial of employment authorization, and an overall sense that the bill simply isn’t a genuine bipartisan effort. In contrast, Senator Kyl used the introduction of ACHIEVE to launch an attack on President Obama for authorizing deferred action for undocumented youth (the DACA program), in which he argued that the President was violating his oath of office by permitting young people to remain in the country without threat of deportation. The public overwhelmingly disagrees on that point, apparently, or doesn’t care, as polling by Latino Decisions indicates that DACA is enormously popular because it reflects the widely held belief that young people should not be penalized for their unlawful status. In fact, immigration in general, and DACA in particular, was a critical element in President’ Obama’s 70 per cent or more showing among Latino voters.
Republican pollsters and strategists continue to acknowledge that the party must grapple with real immigration reform solutions if it wants to attract and retain Latinos, immigrants, and African Americans. As Gary Segura, of Latino Decisions has noted, however, simply doing something on immigration isn’t the same as reaching bipartisan agreement on permanent solutions.
This makes the lame duck actions of Congressional Republicans that much more curious. Why push a bill in the House that forces people to make a choice between high skilled workers and the elimination of visas based on diversity? Why take a year to painstakingly write a bill that addresses legal status for undocumented young people, but ignore the one thing—a path to legal status—that is resoundingly supported by the general public? Why let the charge be led by retiring Senators and a House Judiciary Chairman who is slated to move on to another committee in January?
The only explanation that makes any sense is that we are witnessing some of the last desperate attempts to control the immigration debate by restrictionists who don’t know when to stop. Viewing these bills through the lens of political ego makes the most sense, because otherwise, they can only be seen as deliberate attempts to further reduce the Republican party’s appeal to a broader electorate.