Exactly one year after the Senate passed an immigration reform bill that built a compromise on an exchange of increased enforcement for legalization for the 11 million, Republicans have now officially abandoned any pretense of a willingness to participate in solving the immigration crisis. Instead, they have committed the party to a course premised on two intertwined notions: There are no apparent circumstances under which they can accept legalization of the 11 million; and as a result, the only broad response to the crisis they can countenance is maximum deportations.
This means it’s now all in Obama’s hands to decide what he can do unilaterally to ease the pace of deportations and address the current unaccompanied migrant crisis.
One way to understand what happened here is to trace the evolution of GOP Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chair of the Judiciary Committee and a serious party thinker on the issue. Today Politico has a deep dive into the death of reform, reporting that in 2013, House GOP leaders privately told Hispanic leaders that they would try to embrace reform if the August recess that year went smoothly. This happened:
At one point, the Rev. Daniel de Leon, a California pastor, asked…Goodlatte about family reunification — a critical issue for religious communities. The normally reserved Virginia Republican…began to cry and choked up completely, two people inside the room recalled.
About a minute later, Goodlatte regained his composure. Apologizing for the abrupt tears, the former immigration attorney discussed how the issue is a deeply personal one: His wife Maryellen’s parents were first-generation immigrants from Ireland, he explained, and throughout his legal career, Goodlatte helped immigrants from more than 70 nations come to the United States.
Now fast forward to yesterday. Goodlatte effectively declared immigration reform dead as long as Obama is in office, blaming his decision to defer the deportation of DREAMers for the current crisis of unaccompanied migrants crossing.
This tells the entire story. Goodlatte was an early proponent of a form of legalization for the 11 million that could have been the basis for compromise. In this scenario, Republicans could have voted on piecemeal measures that included just legalization — and no citizenship — packaged with concurrent enforcement triggers. Paul Ryan and Mario Diaz-Balart both floated versions of that idea, which is to say, Republicans probably could have passed something like this, though it would have been (shock! horror!) difficult. This could have led to a decent deal for Republicans: In negotiations with the Senate, Dems would drop the special path to citizenship in exchange for Republicans agreeing to legal tweaks making it easier for the legalized to eventually find their way to citizenship through normal channels.
That’s essentially the larger scenario Goodlatte supported as early as last summer, and those who closely follow this debate have long known it was a plausible scenario and an endgame GOP leaders such as John Boehner privately hoped for. But it would have required getting the right angry at some point (which any immigration solution was always going to do). And so, it ran up against an unwillingness by a large bloc of Republicans in the House to do the hard work of figuring out what set of terms and conditions, if any, might enable them to support some form of legal status in the face of the right’s rage. Jeb Bush’s remarks were controversial precisely because he revealed the GOP unwillingness to cross this Rubicon as a moral challenge Republicans could not bring themselves to tackle. Even Boehner — who actually deserves some credit for trying to ease the party towards accepting legalization — essentially admitted this was the real obstacle to reform in a moment of candor earlier this spring.
And that’s where we are now. The current crisis is actually an argument for comprehensive immigration reform. But Goodlatte — who once cried about the breakup of families — is now reduced to arguing that the crisis is the fault of Obama’s failure to enforce the law. Goodlatte’s demand (which is being echoed by other, dumber Republicans) that Obama stop de-prioritizing the deportation of the DREAMers really means: Deport more children. When journalist Jorge Ramos confronted Goodlatte directly on whether this is really what he wants, the Republican refused to answer directly. But the two main GOP positions — no legalization, plus opposition to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (relief for the DREAMers) — add up inescapably to “get the hell out” as the de facto GOP response to the broader crisis.
This is the course Republicans have chosen — they’ve opted to be the party of maximum deportations. Now Democrats and advocates will increase the pressure on Obama to do something ambitious to ease deportations in any way he can. Whatever he does end up doing will almost certainly fall well short of what they want. But determining the true limits on what can be done to mitigate this crisis is now on him.