5 Signs That the Immigration Debate Is About to Get Ugly

Partisan bickering over immigration can commence...now.

July 11, 2013, 11:11 AM

July 11, 2013— -- Republican representatives huddled on Wednesday to talk strategy, but the message was basically the same as it's been from the start: a big immigration bill that allows undocumented immigrants to become citizens isn't going anywhere in the House.

One thing that appears to be changing is the tone of the debate. With immigration reform stuck in neutral, supporters and detractors are cutting loose.

Here are five signs that the immigration debate is about to get ugly:

1. A steep ideological divide

We said it once, but it bears repeating: "path to citizenship." Democrats won't support a bill unless it gives the country's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants a way to become citizens.

A faction of House Republicans is outright opposed to that idea, which they see as "destroying the rule of law," in the words of committed "amnesty" opponent Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

Party leadership in the House appears more open-minded. At the Wednesday meeting, Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan (Wis.) all stressed the need for Republicans to deal with immigration, perhaps in a more scaled-down way.

Given the tensions between both parties and within the Republican Party itself, expect to see some sparks in the coming months.

2. The new timeline

The Senate moved quickly (in congressional terms) to pass an immigration bill, but the House is in no rush to act.

Many House members said that they'd prefer their chamber to take a slower, step-by-step approach and pass elements of immigration reform in pieces. And it looks highly unlikely that the House will take major votes on immigration legislation before its August recess.

"When we deal with immigration reform, we have to get it done right the first time," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told reporters after leaving the meeting room.

Allowing the process to slip past the August recess doesn't bode well for reform. Lawmakers could face backlash against the process from Tea Party groups at town hall meetings, similar to what happened during the health care debate in 2009. And Congress will have to deal with the debt ceiling and the continuing resolution that funds the government in September and October, which could distract from the immigration push.

But there could be a silver lining. Some aides on Capitol Hill privately express hope that the if budget debates could draw headlines and attention away from immigration, that could give proponents of reform room to maneuver behind the scenes.

3. Mistrust of President Obama

One major theme that emerged out of the meeting was the Republicans' deep distrust of Barack Obama.

Republicans have questioned Obama's sincerity since the first year of his presidency. And several members said they don't trust the president to implement the border security elements of immigration reform, citing his administration's decision to delay a key portion of the health care law until 2015.

"Trusting Obama w/ border security is like trusting Bill Clinton w/ your daughter," Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) tweeted after the meeting.

Steve King told reporters after the meeting that Congress shouldn't do anything until the Obama administration toughens immigration enforcement under existing law, comparing the president to a rebellious teenager.

"It's like having a teenager who wants the keys to the car but he's wrecked the other one," said King. "Maybe handing him a new credit card saying, 'Yeah, you promised you'd mow the lawn and carry out the garbage. Here are the keys to the car.' You have to do it the other way, say, 'Mow the lawn, do your chores and then talk to me and then we'll discuss whether you get the keys to the car.'"

Some top House members, like Paul Ryan, are working behind the scenes to get their colleagues on board with the immigration push, arguing it's a good thing for their party and the country.

But it could be hard to convince enough House Republicans to get on board with one of Obama's major second-term priorities if they don't trust the president and are skeptical of sweeping legislation.

4. The win-win scenario for Democrats

Sure, passing an immigration bill would make President Obama and his fellow Democrats happy. It would be a signature accomplishment of the president's time in office.

But even if House Republicans manage to kill the legislative effort, Dems might not be so upset, because they'll be able to carry that message through the next election cycle and perhaps into the 2016 presidential election. That could stunt any GOP effort to re-brand and expand its appeal to Latino voters.

"Is there a short-term political advantage [for Republicans] by doing nothing and continuing the same rhetoric they have used for the last 10 years? Probably," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said Wednesday. "In the long term, absolutely there is a loss. That's their struggle."

Here's what Democrats can tell voters: Republicans wouldn't pass immigration reform, mainly because they couldn't swallow the idea of millions of Latino and Asian immigrants becoming citizens.

5. The reasonable people are hiding

There is one group of congressional members who could come to the rescue and potentially revive immigration reform in the House, but we sent out the bat-signal a long time ago, and they still haven't answered.

The House "Gang of Seven" is a group of three Republicans and four Democrats who have been meeting intermittently about immigration reform for years. They apparently have a 500-page bill drafted but aren't ready to release it.

Part of the issue could be how Republican leadership wants to approach immigration. The "Gang of Seven" drafted a comprehensive bill, which would make broad changes to the immigration system. But it appears House Republicans favor a piecemeal approach, dealing with one issue at a time.

That doesn't mean the bipartisan bill is dead -- it could still be broken into parts and voted on that way. When asked about that idea by The Hill, one of the gang members, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), said he wasn't opposed.

"To me that's a strategic decision. It doesn't concern me one way or the other."

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