A few modest proposals will likely see votes as Republicans face political pressure to address the broken system.
With comprehensive immigration reform essentially dead on Capitol Hill for the foreseeable future, Republicans appear poised to advance a series of incremental measures to address the hot-button issue amid political pressure to tackle the broken system.
GOP lawmakers in recent weeks have proposed potential areas of compromise they hope can help the party handle the delicate balance between appeasing the demands of the base in beefing up border security while addressing the practical economic need for foreign labor.
The moves come amid almost no progress on immigration legislation since the then-Democratically controlled Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill in 2013 that never came up for a vote in the GOP-led House. The impasse led President Barack Obama to issue executive orders protecting some groups of immigrants living illegally in the U.S. from deportation – infuriating Republicans in the process.
With the unilateral moves halted by a federal judge, congressional leadership has been content to sidestep the thorny issue after losing a faceoff in March in which they unsuccessfully tried to tie funding for the Department of Homeland Security to a rollback of the Obama actions. But the looming presidential race has increased the sense of urgency among some of the rank and file eager to see the party raise its standing among Hispanic voters.
“If you’re a Republican [running for president], you at minimum want the immigration issue neutralized, and maybe gain votes where Mitt Romney was unable to get them” in 2012, says Stuart Anderson, executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit National Foundation for American Policy.
While any of the the piecemeal proposals faces long odds to passage and even less chance of cooperation with the White House, one area of focus appears to be on guest worker programs that would increase the number and accessibility of visas for both high- and low-skilled workers. The reform already has bipartisan support.
“When it comes to illegal immigration, what’s the No. 1 reason people come to this country illegally? The same reason our ancestors came here: to work,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said Tuesday at a bipartisan event exploring pragmatic methods of reigniting the debate on reform. “From my standpoint, if you really want to secure our border, let’s eliminate or drastically reduce the incentives for illegal immigration, starting with a guest worker program.”
Some studies have suggested that, instead of taking away jobs from Americans, those workers help spur economic growth. It’s a position immigration advocates hope to use to sell the issue to a broader constituency.
“If you don’t have a restaurant worker working in the kitchen … you’re not going to have good jobs, waiter jobs, management jobs in restaurants for Americans,” says Alfonso Aguilar, director of the Latino Partnership program at the conservative American Principles in Action group and the former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship under President George W. Bush. “So we need to connect with the middle class and show that immigration is good for the middle class.”