Behind the Failure on Immigration Reform

Is there any room for optimism on the immigration front?


Sheldon Adelson, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett say they want Congress to pass an immigration reform bill. So does Michael Bloomberg.

On the substantive merits, the issue seems like a slam dunk. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants. Both political parties at least say they realize the need to do something about the millions of illegal immigrants here in America, and to prevent our country from losing out by turning away talent that wants to come here.

So why in the world hasn't it happened yet?

With Congress headed off to summer recess without acting on the issue, I rang up the president and CEO of Immigration Works USA, Tamar Jacoby, a smart and capable public-policy person who is right in the middle of the effort to pass an immigration law—and has been for years.

"It's been a frustrating ride," she says. "We didn't win."

Jacoby points out that it's not just immigration reform that hasn't happened. There's a reason that people call Washington, D.C. totally dysfunctional. All sorts of other issues where there is broad elite consensus and even ostensible bipartisan agreement about the need for action—corporate tax reform, individual tax simplification, patent reform, entitlement reform—have also not yet resulted in the passage of legislation.

I usually look at the bright side of this. The constitutional set up that makes it difficult for Congress to pass laws helps to protect Americans from being burdened with more bad ones. One person's "gridlock" is another person's "checks and balances."

And for all the talk about how wealthy interest groups or individuals purchase influence in American politics—to read the New Yorker and The New York Times, you'd think the entire right side of the American political spectrum takes its marching orders directly from the Koch brothers—the involvement of Messrs. Buffett and Bloomberg on this one hasn't translated into congressional votes in favor.

Why it so tough? Support for immigration reform is bipartisan, with declared supporters who have included George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, Senator McCain, and Speaker Boehner on the Republican side and President Obama and Sen. Schumer on the Democratic side. But opposition is also bipartisan. Jacoby speaks of an "unholy alliance" in which anti-immigrant Republicans have joined with Democrats allied with labor unions, many of which have a history of resisting immigration out of concern that a supply of immigrant workers competing for jobs will drive down wages.

Tactically, there might be a temptation to break off smaller pieces of the pro-immigrant agenda—more visas for highly educated high-tech workers, for example—to satisfy Silicon Valley lobbyists. But the Congressional Hispanic Congress and Sen. Menendez have opposed that approach, preferring to have pressure build for a "comprehensive" solution.

While many Republicans, including the leadership, want to act on the issue, in part because they realize the long-term political risks to the party of appearing obstructionist on it, they see it a bit like going to the dentist. They realize they have to do it, but they aren't looking forward to it, and they certainly aren't in any big rush. Democrats, for their part, like having the issue as a club with which to bash Republicans, and thus aren't in any particular rush themselves to pass a law which would defuse a campaign issue. Plenty of House members are in safe seats anyway. For them, the national politics of the issue are remote.

Jacoby says that all these explanatory factors shouldn't diminish my indignation at Congress's failure to act.

"We really are so close," she says. "This year I actually thought we were going to get it done."

The crisis of unaccompanied minors at the border has somewhat eroded support for immigration reform in recent polls, she says, but it could crystallize a push for legislation if a bill is seen as something that would help get control of the situation. An improving economy could also improve chances for the legislation, especially to the extent that anxiety among low-wage workers about their own job prospects feeds anti-immigrant sentiment. Some immigration laws could pass next year, perhaps if Republicans wind up with control of both the House and the Senate, and if the House begins to address the issue one piece at a time—assuming President Obama doesn't scramble things up by trying to act unilaterally and on a large scale without Congress, which he may well do.

There's room for optimism on the immigration issue, but beware the illusion of inevitability. Says Jacoby: "I've been predicting 'next year' for, like, a decade."