His agenda tattered by last year’s confrontations and missteps, President Barack Obama begins 2014 clinging to the hope of winning a lasting legislative achievement: an overhaul of immigration laws.
It will require a deft and careful use of his powers, combining a public campaign in the face of protests over his administration’s record number of deportations with quiet, behind-the-scenes outreach to Congress, something seen by lawmakers and immigration advocates as a major White House weakness.
In recent weeks, both Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have sent signals that raised expectations among overhaul supporters that 2014 could still yield the first comprehensive change in immigration laws in nearly three decades. If successful, it would fulfill an Obama promise many Latinos say is overdue.
The Senate last year passed a bipartisan bill that was comprehensive in scope that addressed border security, provided enforcement measures and offered a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants in the United States without permission from the government. House leaders, pressed by tea party conservatives, demanded a more limited and piecemeal approach.
Indicating a possible opening, Obama has stopped insisting the House pass the Senate version. And two days after calling Boehner to wish him happy birthday in November, Obama made it clear he could accept the House’s bill-by-bill approach, with one caveat: In the end, “we’re going to have to do it all.”
Boehner, for his part, in December hired Rebecca Tallent, a former top aide to Sen. John McCain and most recently the director of a bipartisan think tank’s immigration task force. Even opponents of a broad immigration overhaul saw Tallent’s selection as a sign legislation had suddenly become more likely. Boehner also fed speculation he would ignore tea party pressure, bluntly brushing back their criticism of December’s modest budget agreement.
“The question is what are the core things that Republicans can’t move away from, what are the core things that Democrats can’t walk away from,” said Republican pollster David Winston, who regularly consults with the House leadership. “You may have preferences and then you may have core elements. That’s part of the process of going back and forth.”
If successful, an immigration compromise could restore some luster to Obama’s agenda, tarnished in 2013 by failures on gun legislation, bipartisan pushback on his efforts to take military action against Syria and the disastrous enrollment start for his health care law.
Obama has repeatedly argued that final immigration legislation must contain a path toward citizenship for those here without legal papers. Opponents argue citizenship rewards lawbreakers, and many Republicans are loath to support any measure granting citizenship no matter how difficult and lengthy that path may be.
But some advocates of reform are beginning to rally around an idea to grant immigrants legal status in the U.S. and leave the question of citizenship out of the legislation. In other words, they can work, but not vote.
“I don’t think this is a good idea because citizenship is important, but I don’t think it is a big deal breaker either,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leading congressional advocate for overhauling U.S. immigration law, said in a speech last month. “Right now we have to stop the deportations that are breaking up families. And if we do not get citizenship this year, we will be back next year and the year after that.”
While strong majorities of Hispanics continue to back a pathway to citizenship, a Pew Research Center poll last month found that being able to live and work in the U.S. legally without the threat of deportation was more important to Latinos by 55 percent to 35 percent.
“Is the sticking point going to be we have to have immediate voting privileges for those who came here illegally?” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican who voted against the Senate immigration bill, said Sunday on ABC. “If the Democrats are willing to come halfway, I think we can pass something, some meaningful reform that would help the 11 million who are here.”
That the immigration argument is now over legalization versus citizenship is remarkable enough. A 2005 Republican House immigration bill, instead of legalizing immigrants, would have made them felons if they were not authorized to be in the U.S.
“That’s seismic shift in the debate,” said Randy Johnson, senior vice president of the pro-overhaul U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Obama, whose support among Latinos has dropped from nearly 80 percent to 55 percent, has been under increasing pressure to use his executive powers to limit deportations. Obama’s Homeland Security Department has deported 1.9 million people during the president’s nearly five years in office, prompting protests ranging from a 22-day fast by activists in Washington to outbursts at Obama public events.
“As long as we have a failure to achieve immigration reform, combined with the record-breaking level of deportations, there will continue to be great dissatisfaction in the Latino community with the president,” said Janet Murguia, the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, a leading Latino advocacy group.
A House Republican retreat later this month could help GOP leaders devise a strategy. Some Republicans and Democrats say Boehner could wait until after the filing deadlines for 2014 primary elections, thus protecting some incumbents from tea party or other conservative challenges. That would mean no meaningful votes until after April.
The White House’s own strategy has not impressed before. Immigration advocates and Democratic lawmakers say the White House last year mistakenly assumed that the bipartisan Senate bill would create enough momentum to bulldoze its way through the House.
“They completely misunderstood the impact that the Senate bill would have,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, a key Democrat on immigration who sits on the House Judiciary Committee. “To think that that would magically transform the House of Representatives was never in the cards.”