If Washington gridlock could be captured by one issue, it would be immigration reform. Not since the 1990s have the House, the Senate, and the President been able to agree on legislation that addresses the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, nearly half of whom come from Mexico.
On Wednesday, history repeated itself in the U.S. Senate when two immigration bills failed cloture, a rule that requires legislation to garner 60 votes to proceed. The Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act prohibits certain federal grants from going to cities that shield undocumented immigrants from deportation, often in defiance of federal law. It failed 53-44. Kate’s Law increases criminal penalties for immigrants who illegally enter the country multiple times and for those who return after being deported for aggravated felonies. It failed 55-42.
Georgia Senators Johnny Isakson and David Perdue voted in favor of both bills. Here is an excerpt from Senator Isakson’s press release.
While I have now voted multiple times to enforce existing immigration laws and protect our national security interests, Senate Democrats have again obstructed these measures and continue to undermine the rule of law in the United States. The American people are fed up with our government’s failure to take immigration enforcement seriously, yet President Obama and his party in the Senate continue to demonstrate that they will stop at nothing to defend lawbreakers and undermine our nation’s immigration laws. I will continue to advocate for these commonsense enforcement measures, and I call on my Democratic colleagues to listen to the American people and stop this obstruction.”
Washington’s stagnant response to immigration reform, which theoretically draws bipartisan support, comes from the lack of trust between the Obama Administration and Republicans. Republicans complain that President Obama and Democrats in sanctuary cities like New York and San Francisco do not enforce existing immigration laws, particularly those that would increase security and lead to more deportations. President Obama’s executive action that deferred deportations for the parents of undocumented immigrants and permanent legal residents is exhibit A for why Republicans have little faith in the President’s enforcement of immigration laws (this is despite evidence that Obama has deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president in history, a claim that is not without controversy).
Another example is the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which instructs the federal government to deport immigrants residing in the country illegally, increase the penalties for persons deported more than once, and to bar permanently those convicted of aggravated felonies. The story behind Kate’s Law is that Kate Steinle, an American citizen, was allegedly murdered by an undocumented immigrant who had been released by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department just three months earlier despite having seven felonies and five deportations on his record. If San Francisco would have made the effort to enforce federal laws, Steinle might still be alive.
Most Republicans want an assurance that Democrats will enforce deportation and border security rules before meeting them halfway on a compromise measure that provides a pathway to citizenship or at least legal status. In 2013 the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that was drawn up by the bipartisan Gang of Eight. The bill contained both a pathway to citizenship and tougher border security. It passed the Senate with an impressive bipartisan vote of 68-32.
However, the bill died when House Republicans refused to bring it to the floor, saying that the Obama Administration must first prove that it is committed to border security and interior enforcement before they would consider legalizing undocumented immigrants. Paul Ryan reiterated this when he became Speaker, confirming that “[t]he House of Representatives will not vote on comprehensive immigration legislation as long as President Obama is in office. And the reason is simple: The American people can’t trust him to uphold the law.”
Efforts by Democrats to protect sanctuary cities are unlikely to soften Republican resistance to immigration reform. Laws are nothing but words until the executive acts upon them. If divided government and distrust between the parties continue, a 21st century immigration law might still be a long way off.
Some hold out more hope. Senator Lindsey Graham plans to bring back the Gang of Eight bill to a Democrat-controlled Senate in 2017 after what he predicts to be a Republican thrashing in the 2016 elections. However, Democrats are unlikely to take back the House, meaning that Ryan and his caucus would have to trust President Hillary Clinton, who has expressed support for sanctuary cities, to enforce new immigration laws.
This much can be said about immigration reform: “Nothing is impossible. It’s just highly improbable.”