Did the Federal Shutdown Improve Chances for Immigration Reform?

by Randy Shaw on October 22, 2013

Prior to Tea Party hijinks around a federal shutdown, post-Labor Day politics were supposed to be focused on immigration reform. While many questioned whether House Speaker John Boehner would bring the Senate immigration bill to a vote, immigration activists used August to pressure Republican congress members, exposing the narrowness of the opposition’s base. Pro-reform activists had the momentum —until the news media shifted all attention to the shutdown. This caused the October 5 nationwide immigration protests to get much less attention, and to reduce their political impact.

Now the question is whether Tea Party Republicans will allow Boehner to hold a vote on President Obama’s top priority issue, or whether their increased post-shutdown animosity toward the President prevents such action. Most observers believe the latter, but as I wrote in March 2012 predicting that the Supreme Court would uphold Obamacare, allowing an immigration reform vote would buy the Tea Party a tremendous amount of political space.

Predicting the politics of immigration reform is not easy. The mass marches of 2006 seemed to create momentum for a comprehensive measure, yet by 2008 all prospects for enactment were dead. Hopes rose again in 2009 after Obama’s election and Democrats took control of Congress, but as I describe in the new edition of my book, The Activist’s Handbook, activists allowed Obama’s agenda to derail the immigration reform cause.

After Republicans took back the House in 2010 and prospects for reform looked bleak, young Dreamers surprised the nation by pressuring Obama to bypass Congress and issue an order on June 15, 2012 implementing his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals plan. Strong Latino turnout for Democrats in November 2012 then created new momentum for reform, with key Republican leaders and even FOX News now backing comprehensive reform.

When 2013 began, activists’ hopes were high. And after the Senate passed comprehensive reform by a 68-32 margin, it seemed that the Republican Party finally understood that their future winning of the White House required getting past the immigration reform issue.

Tea Party Obstructionism

I wrote after the Senate vote that Speaker Boehner was now playing a “High-Stakes Game of Chicken” on immigration reform. As much as he talked like he would not allow a vote, Boehner knew that the Chamber of Commerce, tech groups and other GOP donors all wanted the Senate bill to become law.

I don’t see the shutdown as changing Boehner’s political calculations. In fact, if the Speaker kept his job despite granting a House vote on the budget ceiling, his risks are even less over immigration reform—a cause even the Koch brothers support.

A crucial strategic difference between shutting down the federal government and denying a vote on immigration reform is that the former involved the Tea Party trying to leverage a short-term deadline for potential gains. But immigration reform is longterm. The legislation is not going away until enactment, and the political heat from delay brings nothing akin to sequester-type benefits.

Further, whereas the Tea Party was galvanized for a fight over Obamacare, its base doesn’t really care about immigration reform. This means Boehner would be weakening the GOP for 2014 over an issue that energizes Democrats, a strategic misstep he is less likely to take in the wake of the shutdown’s failure.

Activists on the March

Unlike 2009, immigration rights activists have not allowed other issues to deter their ongoing mobilizing for reform. Groups like the faith-based Gamaliel grassroots network have never stopped building support for a House vote, while their opponents are far less engaged than in past efforts.

President Obama is credited for a smart strategy in promoting immigration reform after the government’s reopening, but the fact is that he had no choice. This is what the Democratic base most cares about, and it has also become Obama’s chief domestic priority.

Anything is possible with the Tea Party running the House, but I think the chances for passage are better today than immediately following the Senate’s action. GOP House members have seen those falling poll numbers in the wake of the shutdown, and their political survival instincts could require them to support a House immigration vote.

Randy Shaw discusses the strategies and tactics of the immigration reform movement in his new book, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century.

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