The Two Big Questions On Immigration Reform

Barack Obama NSAAPWill President Obama hold firm on his demand for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants?

While attention this week will mostly focus on President Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday night, House Republicans are also expected to release their “immigration principles” after their retreat this week. The White House hopes that it can build on that to reach a final agreement.

Last year, the Senate passed an immigration bill that included a 13-year path to citizen for undocumented immigrants, increased spending on border security, a beefed up E-verify system, a quicker path to citizenship for DREAMers, and increased high-skilled immigration.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said that the House will not take up a comprehensive bill like what passed the Senate. Instead, the lower chamber will pass a series of smaller bills.

The principles that House Republican are expected to include increased border enforcement, a strengthened E-verify system and an increase in high-skilled immigration. They also may allow DREAMers to earn full citizenship. Where the House and Senate differ is on a path to citizenship. The House principles are unlikely to include one, instead opting for a path to legalization that does not include citizenship.

Comparing the Senate bill with the House principles, there are two important questions whose answers will determine whether immigration reform has a chance to pass this year.

1. Will conservatives revolt over legalization and kill the bill?

While liberals want undocumented immigrants to have the option of attaining full citizenship, many conservatives and tea partiers don’t want them even eligible for legalization. This is something Byron York touched on in a piece this morning when he asked if House Republican leadership was “planning to pull a fast one on immigration” by bringing up a bill with full legalization after Republican primaries. This would allow Republicans whose constituents oppose full legalization to vote for the bill without the threat of facing a tea party challenge.

If Republican leaders do this, it may increase the odds of final passage, but it would also infuriate conservatives around the country. During the congressional recess last August, anti-immigration reform activists flooded events held by Republicans to make clear that they opposed immigration reform. If Republican leadership tries to push through a bill after the primary season that includes legalization of undocumented immigrants, expect a similar, if not greater, outpouring of criticism against Republican lawmakers. However, if this backlash does not develop, immigration reform has a chance.

2. Will Democrats and the White House demand a pathway to citizenship?

If conservatives may revolt over potential legalization for undocumented immigrants, then they certainly will do so for any bill that leaves open a pathway to citizenship. Republican leadership will not schedule a vote on a pathway to citizenship directly, but one could come out of a conference committee if the Senate and House both pass bills. For that reason, the immigration principles are expected to include a promise not to enter conference negotiations. That means that if the White House wants immigration reform to pass, it will need to accept that a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants isn’t happening.

The administration has previously said that any immigration bill must include a pathway to citizenship. If the House passes a series of bills that only include a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants, whether the president will accept that will be key. One thing to keep in mind is that most undocumented immigrants care more about ending deportations than a pathway to citizenship. That could play into the president’s thinking.

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