Symposium | Humane Immigration Reform Now

The Politics: Creating a Sense of Urgency

By Carlos Curbelo

Tagged bipartisanshipbordersCongressimmigrationRepublicans

It was the spring of 2018, and our small but relentless posse of pro-immigration reform House Republicans had had enough. Throughout the entire 115th Congress, we had asked Speaker Paul Ryan and other party leaders for the opportunity to debate and consider immigration legislation on the House floor. Specifically, we wanted to meaningfully address the status of young immigrants who arrived in our country as minors; a group commonly referred to as Dreamers. Every time, we were told to wait with patience. After a conversation on Air Force One with President Trump, in which he expressed interest in signing a reform bill and intimated that GOP leadership in the House and Senate preferred to avoid the issue until after the midterm elections (which meant more waiting for us), I went to my colleagues and told them we would have to take matters into our own hands.

They agreed, and we took the extraordinary step of filing a discharge petition in coordination with our Democratic colleagues, despite the fact that we were members of the majority party. Typically, a discharge petition is an instrument of the minority in the House. If a majority of House members agrees to sign such a petition, legislation is moved out of committee—that is, the committee is “discharged” of the responsibility of acting on the bill—and can head straight to a floor vote. While we did not achieve the number of signatures needed to activate the petition, we got close enough to force the Speaker to agree to bring immigration legislation to the floor after a negotiation among Republicans. For six weeks, immigration reformists met with immigration restrictionists to work on a compromise bill. We built a bill in the Speaker’s office that would guarantee Dreamers a path to citizenship while extensively funding border security and closing loopholes in the system. We also proposed modernizing the visa system, among other changes.

When it came time to vote, the immigration restrictionists in the House Republican Conference, who designed the legislation with us, almost unanimously voted against the bill. Even though the mechanism to afford Dreamers the opportunity to legalize was proposed by one of their members. Still, at crunch time, few were willing to take a risk in favor of delivering a rational solution on a major policy question. This despite the fact that many of our House Freedom Caucus colleagues thought it was a good product that would leave the country better off. I still remember the first time we gathered in Kevin McCarthy’s conference room. I shared my proposed “earned paths to citizenship” for Dreamers. These included getting a degree in higher education, serving in the military, or being gainfully employed. Those who had committed any serious crimes would be excluded. Jim Jordan, who was sitting on the other side of the table, told me he thought it was perfectly reasonable and made sense. He then left and checked with someone, and the next time we met he said he couldn’t support such a policy because it created a “privilege” for these young immigrants.

And President Trump, who had assured me he was willing to sign this kind of legislation into law—including a massive, record-breaking investment in border security—was completely useless. He was summoned to the Capitol to speak to House Republicans in support of our bill and of another more conservative bill. He used most of his time with us attacking the “Russia hoax,” Hillary Clinton, the FBI, and our colleague Mark Sanford, who had lost his primary. It was deeply frustrating and deflating. My only regret from the entire process was not interrupting him in that meeting and asking him to speak to the legislation. As with all things since Trump was elected in 2016, a lot of Republicans would not cast a vote for our bill unless the President explicitly and clearly told them it was okay.

A few of our Democratic colleagues who reviewed the legislation after it was released also shared with me the that they thought the bill was a good product, but that their leadership had asked them to oppose it unanimously. One morning in the House gym, two of my old exercise partners who are Democrats told me what a shame it was that they’d be unable to support the bill. While I understand they were displeased that they had not been part of the process, during my time in Congress, most of the bills I ended up voting for I had no role in drafting.

Our effort, though sincere and arduous, ended like so many initiatives in Congress to reform our immigration laws: in failure. One consolation prize was that, for the first time ever, a majority of House Republicans—including all members of the leadership team—went on record supporting a path to citizenship for Dreamers. Another was that, after countless hours of meetings and negotiations, some of which included all 240 or so House Republicans, members had gained a better understanding of the immigration issue and the law. During some of our early meetings, a few colleagues would ask why young undocumented immigrants who had come to the United States as children didn’t simply apply for green cards like all other immigrants. They were not aware that Dreamers do not have this option under the law and thought we were simply trying to make it easier for them to make political hay. The entire exercise served to educate Members of Congress on the complex nature of our immigration system and on its numerous deficiencies.

Why is an immigration solution so elusive? One reason is that the undocumented can do little to influence politicians. They cannot contribute to campaigns nor form PACs. Immigrant advocacy groups tend to have limited resources, and while some business organizations support reform, it is usually a second- or third-tier priority. Another reason is that, while most Americans support broad immigration reform, including a fair solution for most of the undocumented population, those who oppose efforts characterized as “amnesty” are louder and more concentrated—especially in Republican primaries. Immigration law is also complex and convoluted, which complicates the work of those trying to legislate in this policy area.

While all of these reasons help explain why immigration efforts have repeatedly faltered, during my time in Congress, I found that the chief culprit wasn’t any of these. Instead, it was that too many members of Congress have a strong preference for the politics of immigration over the solutions for immigration. For many Democrats, it’s more expedient to remain inflexible and uncompromising on topics like border security and closing loopholes in the law that are exploited by coyotes and other criminal enterprises. This posture guarantees inaction, enabling Democrats to label all Republicans as “anti-immigrant” come election season. For many Republicans who have embraced the nativist politics of former President Trump and his movement, reaching any kind of agreement that would treat the undocumented with fairness and compassion would undermine their attacks against “open-border” Democrats and attenuate the anti-immigrant fervor that motivates some voters in different parts of the country.

So how do we solve the immigration puzzle?

It will take some honesty and patriotism. Add a cup of humility and another of selflessness—you know, everything our political leaders are known for. And of course, an almost constant prerequisite for congressional action is a set of conditions that create pressure and a sense of urgency in legislators.

Considering this last point, it’s actually a perfect time for Congress to embark on yet another immigration reform adventure. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is under threat from a federal judge. June saw a record number of illegal crossings at our southwest border. Countless employers throughout our country cannot find people to work for them, a situation that persists even in states where unemployment benefits have been reduced. All of this while millions of people continue living in our country’s shadows.

While the situation at our southwest border is troubling, the Biden Administration certainly deserves credit for having an immigration reform plan and for getting it to Congress literally as they were walking into the White House for the first time in January. The plan is comprehensive and ambitious, but it should represent a starting point for Democrats when they engage congressional Republicans on this issue. Democratic plans to “go it alone” on immigration are unrealistic for two main reasons. Firstly, centrist Democrats are not all comfortable with the expansiveness of the Biden proposal being carried by Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey. Secondly, it is highly unlikely that Senate rules allow substantive reforms of our immigration laws to travel through the reconciliation process. Although it may be discouraging for many to read this, for now the only path to meaningful immigration reform is a bipartisan one. Now that the DACA program is again at risk, perhaps that is a natural starting point for bipartisan discussions.

The reform and modernization of our country’s immigration laws and the system they establish is an urgent national priority, far more important than the disingenuous campaign strategies employed by self-interested politicians on either side of the aisle. We can better secure our borders, close loopholes in the law, update our visa program so that it is more compatible with our economic needs, treat Dreamers and undocumented immigrants with fairness and compassion, and help heal our society by showing that our leaders can work collaboratively to address national priorities and improve quality of life for current and future Americans. The time to do this was years ago. Let’s do it now.

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Carlos Curbelo is a Principal at Vocero, LLC a communications and public affairs firm. He represented Florida’s 26th District in Congress from 2015-2019.

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