Immigration reform has become an issue that is clearly tied to electoral politics for the Republican Party. Though Speaker John Boehner has insisted recently that immigration reform is not dead, the House is about to finish the year without progress on a topic that is a priority to Latino voters, an electorate the GOP desperately needs to woo before the next presidential race.
In fact, the House’s most visible immigration-related action was a measure to defund an Obama administration program to defer deportations of young immigrants, a vote that increased Latino animosity even though it failed to become law.
The inaction from House Republicans shows that their promises of immigration reform during the last election cycle were not legitimate. During campaigns, candidates often claim they will be delegates of the people if elected in order to increase their appeal to the electorate. In reality, these legislators act as trustees as much as possible without causing a backlash in the next election cycle. This is exactly what is happening with the current Congress: they promised to pass immigration reform in order to sway the Hispanic vote in the last elections, but after they were elected no action has been taken.
As Republicans prepare for far-right challengers in the 2014 mid-term elections, they will have to continue to oppose immigration reform. Although this will help them in the short term, the GOP may suffer in the 2016 elections if they contest immigration reform too strongly in their upcoming campaigns.
Although Congress has called for bipartisan immigration reform in the past year, Republican members of the House do not appear to be inclined to pass such a bill.
In last year’s presidential election, Mitt Romney — whose comment about “self-deportation” infuriated immigration advocates — lost the Latino vote by a 44-percentage-point margin, the largest deficit of any Republican presidential candidate since the Clinton era. Alarmed GOP leaders jump-started congressional talks toward a bipartisan immigration overhaul, and Boehner announced the time had come for Congress to act.
But the Speaker has refused to take up the Senate’s sweeping bipartisan overhaul of immigration laws, even though it would probably pass the House with Democratic support; nor are House Republicans expected to vote on their own measures any time soon.
Divisions within the House GOP have left the party at a standstill. More Republican lawmakers than ever — nearly two dozen, by some counts — support the cornerstone of an immigration overhaul, which is a path to citizenship for immigrants currently in the U.S. illegally.
This strict gatekeeping displayed by Speaker Boehner is a manifestation of the hyper-partisanship in Congress today. Because he knows that the majority party has a high chance of being rolled in a vote on the Senate immigration bill, the Speaker will not bring it to a vote.
This is yet another demonstration of the disunity in the Republican Party. “There’s just no cohesion there yet,” said Senator John McCain, who has tried to persuade Republicans to take action. “All I hope is that they realize that the issue is not going away — that we need to act on it.”
If the party continues to obstruct legislation that the American electorate wants to be passed, they will be held accountable in the next election cycle.
Last Friday, President Obama and his wife, Michelle, visited a group of activists who are staging a hunger strike in hopes of pressuring Congress to pass new immigration laws.
The “Fast for Families” protesters have given up all sustenance except water during their protest, which they hope will force legislators to take up immigration reform measures pending on Capitol Hill.
During his visit with the protesters, Obama said he appreciated the attention they were bringing to the issue, and that he was optimistic immigration reform could pass.
The President has pushed for an overhaul to the nation’s immigration system, most recently during a speech in San Francisco on Monday. He praised the fasting protesters during those remarks, saying the group was “sacrificing themselves in an effort to get Congress to act.”
This display is a demonstration of legislators acting as trustees rather than delegates, an occurrence that has been detrimental to the interests of the constituency in this instance. Congress is failing to represent its constituents, who are calling for immigration reform. By proactively requesting action from Congress, the protesters are signaling that if legislation is not passed, legislators may be held accountable in upcoming elections.
President Obama has been pushing for the changes to immigration for the past several months after a bipartisan Senate plan failed to gain traction in the Republican-controlled House. The measure calls for an eventual pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently in the United States while ramping up border security measures.
Some Republicans in Congress have vowed to oppose the bill because they believe it amounts to amnesty for the illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. House Speaker John Boehner has suggested that he will bring up immigration reform measures piecemeal, rather than in a comprehensive bill.
Although immigration reform is dead this year, many reform advocates are still campaigning to promote legislative action on the issue. In class, we discussed three different types of groups that attempt to lobby congress: business groups, citizens groups, and governmental groups. All three lobby groups have been very active throughout the immigration reform debate. However, which group will have the most influence on Congress and push them to create reform?
Business groups have been speaking directly to members of Congress to convince Republican lawmakers to support a reform bill by talking about the economic benefits. Businesses depend on immigrants to bring cheap labor and innovation to the U.S. economy. In early November, Obama asked big businesses to help him develop strategies to encourage resistant lawmakers to pursue reform. Even the President noticed the potential influence that businesses have over the reform debate. However, this business lobby also has drawbacks. Even though businesses and Republican members of Congress share some of the same free market beliefs, the social beliefs between the two groups creates a divide. In response to some of the lobbying attempts from big business, Republican politicians such as Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions have publicly condemned business for their stance by saying “America is not an oligarchy” and that loose immigration reform is not the best move for our economy. Could a group with economic, national, and social interest better convince Republicans in Congress?
Citizen lobbying groups have the potential to address these concerns. There is a diverse coalition of citizens groups working to convince Congress to pick up immigration reform. Reform is supported by religious groups, social activists, ethnic rights groups, and many other organizations across the nation. Citizen reform groups have been promoting reform using mostly outside lobbying tactics such as fasting for media attention and voicing their concerns about the need for immigration reform. Citizen groups hope to attract the attention of their representatives who will then respond by pursuing legislation. This is a good strategy because legislators are often very willing to listen to their constituents when concerned about their political seat. However, the citizen’s movement for reform is spread out across the country and may not be effective in districts where incumbents have strong support. Could the last form of lobbying group make the difference?
Government lobbying groups could also impact how Congress approaches immigration reform. Governmental groups could have more sway over Congress because of their influence on the function of government. However, there has not been much support for immigration by government lobbying groups. In fact, large groups such as the union representing the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency have spoken out against immigration reform. Head of the ICE union Chris Crane sent a letter to big business such as General Mills and the McDonalds Corporation, warning them that their push for comprehensive reform will undermine the work of the ICE. Although large agencies have failed to act, some former political figure such as former Tim Pawlenty aide David Gaither have started to move individually to push legislative reform. Gaither teamed up with the immigration reform group Fwd.us created by businessman Mark Zuckerberg to try to lobby three conservative members of the House. Fwd.us is notable because the group has attempt to use the support of big companies, notable political figures, and small citizens groups to get attention for immigration reform.
It’s very difficult to say which group will have the most success because each group must overcome obstacles to achieve lobbying results. Maybe the best bet is to combine government, citizen, and business factions like Fwd.us has done to promote reform.
–Arthur Townsend #6
A recent poll published by the Public Religion Research Institute puts the number of Americans supporting a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants at 63%, compared to only 18% wanting to deport them and 14% supporting legal residence but not citizenship. While questions can be raised about whether the survey is biased, it seems that the majority of Americans are open to liberal immigration reform. The problem, however, is that many of those opposed to liberal reform are concentrated in individual and often gerrymandered Congressional districts. The representatives of these districts are thus unlikely to support any type of immigration reform that prioritizes citizenship over border control, lest they risk losing electoral support from their conservative constituents.
I’ve already written about how members of Congress in districts with high Hispanic populations have become more open to reform because of electoral pressure from interest groups. Now, however, advocates for immigration reform are also targeting members from highly conservative districts. While this may initially seem like a waste of time and money, there are two more subtle variables at play that may help pro-immigration factions succeed.
The first is the ambitions of Congressmen beyond their current job; many Congressmen aspire to run for governor or Senator in the relatively near future. With statewide ambitions come statewide constituencies, which almost always will be more liberal than the conservative districts these members currently serve. Even though opposing immigration reform may be sufficient to keep these Congressmen in their current offices, it may have potential consequences on their future ambitions. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL) perfectly illustrates this situation: he currently serves Illinois’ 18th district, which has had a Republican Congressman since 1939. Should Schock support the immigration status quo, he will not lost any significant number of votes in his upcoming elections. It is rumored, however, that Schock is considering a run for governor or Senator in a few years where he will face the entire voting population of Illinois, which has voted Democrat in Presidential elections since 1992. In order to win over this voting base, then, it may be necessary for Schock to support immigration reform. As a result, Schock must balance his short- and long-term goals; if he wants to run for governor or Senator, he must become more moderate on immigration reform, but he cannot lose his current seat, so he cannot go all in on immigration reform. Although this is a very specific situation that applies to very few current members of Congress, every vote will count when the House finally votes on legislation, so these efforts are not in vain.
The other variable that current members of Congress have to think about is the 2020 Census. Though they may serve gerrymandered conservative districts now, come 2021, that could all change. While it is certainly a stretch to say that voters in 2022 will vote based on what these members do in 2014, it is not implausible to think that it may have a small effect, especially if opposition to immigration reform is used as part of a package of negative choices used in attack ads by opposing candidates.
While it may not win over many, the current efforts to sway members of Congress from conservative districts are far from futile. By reminding these members that they will not be electorally secure forever, these groups could make progress with members playing the long game, whether they are looking to run for a statewide office or are simply worried about losing their conservative district in 2021. These efforts could win Democrats valuable Republican votes in the House. Although the final outcome depends on many variables, probably most importantly whether the House votes on comprehensive or piecemeal reform bills, these votes could prove invaluable in bringing meaningful change to the American immigration system.
Earlier this year, we learned that members of Congress can represent their constituents as either delegates or trustees. However, the immigration reform debate has demonstrated that the nature of representation in Congress is very complex. The Republican members of the House have been the focus of media attention for their actions on immigration reform and the government shutdown. Are Republican members of the House currently acting as delegates or representatives for their constituents?
I do not believe that there is a simple answer to this question because many Republican members of the House have been very inactive on immigration reform. It is difficult to determine if this inaction is due to a lack of interest in immigration reform by Republican-represented constituents or a lack of interest by legislators to create reform. The comprehensive immigration reform bill rendered by the Senate earlier this year has been opposed and criticized by Republican members of the House for granting “amnesty” to illegal immigrants and not supporting stronger border control measures. If Republican Representatives are truly representing the opinion of their constituents, then we should see if their political stances match public opinion.
Though measuring public opinion is difficult and may not always be reliable, polls can be used to identify public preferences. The preferences of the public can then be compared to congressional action to gain incited on representative behavior. Recently, a research poll was published by the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan research group, that found that 63% of all Americans support pathway to citizenship if they meet certain requirements. A pathway to citizenship is one of the issues that Republican members of the House are not willing to negotiate on. This data implies that Republican members of the House are likely not acting according to the preferences of their constituents. The same study also reported that a narrow majority of all Americans support stronger border control measures including the installation of 700 miles of new fencing long fence along the US-Mexico border. When considering this aspect of immigration reform, Republican House members’ preferences are more likely to match the preferences of their constituents. This is interesting because it demonstrates that legislators in the House are capable of demonstrating both delegate and trustee behavior on different aspects of the same issue.
I believe the study conducted by the PRRI sheds some light on the nature of representation in Washington. It clearly illustrates how members of Congress can decide their own policies even if they might not have a majority of their constituents’ support. Maybe the key to passing immigration reform this year is to appeal to the individual preferences of members of Congress.
This week in class, we discussed Lobbying and Interest Groups. Interest groups have their own agenda, obviously, and these agendas have sway. These interest groups, which differ from political parties (even though parties are aligned with similar interests), are incredibly strong and can affect legislation, whether they draft it themselves or influence and target committees or leaders to influence the law.
Representative Scott Tipton, Republican of Colorado, is one such leader that has been targeted by interest groups that want reform to be passed. Colorado, and especially Tipton’s district, has a high level of immigrants and hispanics, as his district has a huge agricultural center. It would make sense for him to support some level of reform in order to please constituents. He supports some sort of reform, while attempting to hold accountable the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. “’We’ve got some that were looking for a better life, but they broke the laws to this country,’” he said. “’That can’t be without penalty.’” This attitude understandably angers certain constituents.
However, he seems slightly receptive to listening to constituents, or maybe it’s because his district has a large immigrant population. Regardless, he and eight other Republican members of Congress have been targeted by a coalition of immigration advocates to push reform through the House. This interest group is now pointing to the election aspect of not passing reform: ‘We feel that to move them, we have to awaken the electoral vulnerability that Republicans face, both specific Republicans that have large and growing immigrant electorates and also the party as a national party,’ said Tom Snyder, the immigration campaign director for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., one of the groups behind the campaign. ‘It’s very hard to think about them winning a presidential election with an immigrant electorate that’s growing and overwhelmingly hostile to the party.’”
This is a good point. Lobbyists and interest groups, with the advancement of technology, have the opportunity to gain support from voters all over the country. Voters, if truly passionate, can be mobilized. One thing we mentioned in class, however, is that this mobilization may not be believable to the members of Congress, which may cause them to continue this stalemate by not taking action.
Other interest groups, like the technology sector, argue that this stalemate harms the US as a whole because, without various immigrants or information provided by immigration, the US will fall behind technologically, which is contrary (hopefully) to the wishes of members of Congress.
Regardless of who or which interest groups want change, one thing is for sure – increased pressure by interest groups and lobbying may hopefully cause change. Otherwise, 2014 will be an interesting year for Republicans.