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.
As immigration reform is effectively postponed until next year, I wanted to take time and examine the actions of the President so far and possible options for pushing immigration reform through Congress. President Obama promised to place immigration reform on his political agenda during his presidential re-election campaign and promised a few weeks back to get immigration reform passed before the end of the year. But how much control does the President have over the creation of reform?
Currently, the President has been focusing on smaller changes to immigration policy. Last Friday, President Obama issued a nine page memorandum to allow some of the country’s illegal citizens with relatives in the U.S. military to stay in the United States. The order also allows those illegal family members to apply for citizenship in the U.S. This change is said to positively affect thousands of military families who worry about the legal status of their families. In late August, issued a similar presidential memorandum to prevent the deportation of illegal citizens who were the parents of minor children. Presidential memoranda and executive orders are powerful presidential tools for Obama because he change the way government rules are followed and does not have to appeal for legislative approval. This is one method President Obama can use to reshape our current policies on immigration before the end of the year.
However, executive orders and memoranda only allow the president to make changes to how current law is implemented and followed. Unfortunately, these means do not allow the president to create new immigration reform. This is a huge limitation for President Obama as he continues to persuade a gridlocked Congress to create immigration reform. As we stated in class, the president’s power of persuasion can lead to bargaining between the branches of government and the creation of bipartisan policy. However, the willingness of the House to bargain with the Senate and the President has dramatically decreased since the government shutdown crisis. House Speaker John Boehner has recently stated that the House would not go to a formal conference over a comprehensive reform bill endorsed by the President and the Senate. Many Republicans legislators have found it more political appealing to focus on the failure to successfully implement healthcare reform than to vote on a comprehensive reform approach. Some other legislators like Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, have stated that the President’s use of memoranda to make changes in immigration policy have “poisoned the debate”. In this political environment, it is clear that political conditions will not allow President Obama to have an advantage over Congress. Therefore, he will have little ability to affect policymaking in Congress.
So where does President Obama go from here? As we learned from Richard Neustadt’s book Presidential Power (1960), the president’s influence over policymaking is “weak”. I believe there is little the President can do to bridge the congressional divide between the House and the Senate. The best avenue for any new immigration reform this year might be through memoranda and executive orders.
George F. Will wrote an interesting editorial in the Washington Post this week comparing the debate over immigration reform to the Compromise of 1850. In that case, the issues of the day were “fugitive slaves, the slave trade in the District of Columbia, statehood for California and creation of territorial governments for Utah and New Mexico. A Texas-New Mexico border dispute and some other matters.” Henry Clay, often called the Great Compromiser, had failed to push a comprehensive bill that dealt with each of these issues through the Senate, as there was no majority coalition for any one set of policy outcomes. Stephen A. Douglas took on the task of finding a more workable compromise. Instead of forcing all of the issues into one bill, Douglas created five separate, more specific bills, and was able to get a majority coalition of the Senate for each. The Compromise of 1850, as the package of bills came to be known, postponed the onset of the Civil War for another decade and ultimately helped the Union win, as they had an extra decade of industrial build-up and immigration to support their war effort.
The comparison is fairly straightforward. Harry Reid and Senate Democrats have forced a comprehensive immigration reform bill through the Senate, but it has failed to gain a majority coalition or even a foothold in the House. The argument, then, is that if the Senate or House were to break up the comprehensive bill into smaller, more specific bills, then there might be a way to establish majority coalitions for each in both the House and Senate. Will notes three main issues under the broader umbrella of immigration reform that could be focused on: border security, the workforce, and illegal immigrants.
The piecemeal approach could avoid the types of conflicts that are plaguing the Senate bill. Many issues are interconnected in ways that make them difficult to deal with in a single, comprehensive bill. For example, a common point brought up by Republicans is that they will not support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants until a certain level of border security is reached. The Senate bill contains language for an immediate pathway to citizenship but not strong enough border security for Republicans to sign on. With so many dimensions and variables, the current gridlock suggests that there is no possible solution that a majority coalition of both chambers would support. A piecemeal approach, on the other hand, separates the issues into relatively one-dimensional bills. Though it is by no means guaranteed, finding majority coalitions for these individual bills should be much easier than for a comprehensive bill. The coalition would be different for each bill, and each bill would fall somewhat differently along the political spectrum. Republicans could force strong border control, while Democrats and moderate Republicans in Hispanic districts would implement a pathway to citizenship and relatively strong workforce protections and reforms.
There are a few problems with this approach. First, this is a relatively simple outcome tree to predict: members of Congress would not be comparing just the piecemeal bills with the status quo, they would also compare the piecemeal approach to the comprehensive bill. If they would prefer no part of immigration reform to pass over passing all parts, but with only one aspect that they prefer to the status quo, then they will support the comprehensive bill over the piecemeal approach. Second, there is the question of whether the piecemeal approach would lead to a workable, beneficial outcome. The goal of immigration reform, of course, is not to pass Congress, but to improve the U.S. immigration system and the lives of the immigrants who have come to the country. Though the Senate bill has its own flaws, its separate parts are at least in theory designed to work together to create a working system. There is no telling what would happen with a piecemeal approach; for example, if the outcome of the approach is no additional border security but an immediate pathway to citizenship, the result would be a huge incentive to immigrate to the U.S. illegally, a very undesirable outcome.
Though the results are unpredictable, as there is no way of telling what coalitions would support what piecemeal bills, it is likely that a piecemeal approach would have a better chance of passing Congress than the comprehensive Senate bill we are currently facing. In the midst of our current disagreement over how to attack immigration, it would seem that a possible answer is available if we look to the past.
In class this week, we spent a good amount of time discussing executive-legislative relations. One of the issues we talked about was presidential influence – how much can the president influence the budget, the agenda, etc. The president seems to be going public with the issue of immigration, calling upon conservatives to push for a vote before the end of the year.
According to the ever-credible Fox news, President Obama is meeting with and appealing to big companies to garner support for a vote to have Boehner bring immigration to a vote in the House. There is worry that by courting these individuals, the president is splitting the conservative party into more moderate and comprising Republicans and more stubborn ones (the hazards of attempting to get something done in Congress).
One of the main players angry with the president on this is top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama). His main complaint is that this incoming non-American labor is taking jobs away from the American people (Sessions’s home state of Alabama has an unemployment rate lower than the national average). He holds sway, however, and is being backed by other leading conservative Senators:
“They wrote in a letter earlier this year to the Congressional Black Caucus that granting legal status to illegal immigrants ‘will likely disproportionately harm lower-skilled African-Americans by making it more difficult for them to obtain employment and depressing their wages when they do obtain employment.’”
These leaders hold a lot of sway in the Senate as their parties leaders. This will make bringing the bill to the floor of the House incredibly hard, knowing that, for House Republicans, their compromises will break party unity.
Additionally, a main proponent for immigration in the House (Florida’s own GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart) is now saying that he does not believe that the House Republicans will be bringing immigration to the floor. Diaz-Balart even extrapolates that, if not voted on by February or March, immigration will not be dealt with by this Congress because of the election cycle. According to the Washington Post, “Diaz-Balart has been deeply involved in bipartisan negotiations over immigration for years now, and is thought to be in touch with House GOP leaders on the issue, so folks involved in the immigration debate pay close attention to what he says.”
If this is not dealt with soon, it will begin to divide the Republican party within Congress further. This separation between conservatives and moderates trying to create (or halt) legislation will effectively continue to hinder the legislative process as a whole, and not just with immigration. And while this may have been instigated by President Obama placing pressure on Republican leaders and CEO’s (he offered up the idea of cutting the deficit by “$850 billion in the first 20 years and grow the economy by about $1.4 trillion over the same period”), executive pressure may be necessary in order for anything to get done in the legislature.
Right now, Congress is attempting to pass immigration reform, but will a bipartisan bill emerge before the end of the year? In this round of debate, Democrats and Republicans are discussing the substance of immigration reform, with the proposal to grant undocumented workers permanent legal status being one of the most contentious articles of reform. Democrats in the House and Senate want a comprehensive bill that would include a plan to allow undocumented workers currently in the US to obtain legal citizenship. Republicans strongly oppose proposals that grant legal status to immigrants and insist on increasing spending on border security measures. House Republicans led by Speaker John Boehner have sworn to use a “piecemeal” approach to create reform instead of accepting a reform bill that has already passed the Senate during the summer.
Interestingly enough, there have been a few House Democrats who have expressed their willingness to participate in a piecemeal legislative process if it leads to reform. For example, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) has stated that he is willing to cross the partisan divide and vote on individual aspects of immigration reform. He even criticized his Democratic colleagues in the house for their stubbornness to negotiate with Republicans. However, Gutierrez quickly backtracks from his compromising tone by saying that he will only accept a piecemeal reform process if it leaves intact a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, referred to as the “Dreamers”. Gutierrez could never accept a bill that did not include a path to citizenship for the “Dreamers” because he represents Illinois’s 4th district, a gerrymandered region densely populated with Mexican-Americans and Puerto Rican- Americans. Obtaining citizenship is probably a relevant issue for some of the residents in the district and if Gutierrez is caught supporting a bill without a path to citizenship he would likely lose some support from his constituents. Even though immigration reform could positively affect his district, Gutierrez must also protect his political seat by ensuring that the children of illegal immigrants have an opportunity to become citizens.
Gutierrez’s willingness to engage in a piecemeal legislative process is both encouraging and discouraging for the fate of new immigration reform. It demonstrates that some politicians in Congress really want to produce viable immigration reform and are willing to go beyond party antics to achieve policy outcomes. However, the willingness of congressmen to pursue a bipartisan solution seems quite limited. Republicans refuse to vote for a comprehensive immigration reform bill and political restraints have force Gutierrez to become less compromising on a path to citizenship. Hopefully Gutierrez and other members of Congress can find a way to work together before the opportunity to create lasting reform goes away.