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October 22, 2017

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Five ways the election calendar threatens immigration reform in the House

The House of Representatives has zero chance of completing its work on immigration before the start of the August recess. And that means, from here on out, the fate of comprehensive reforms will be inextricably linked with the 2014 election calendar.

The August recess marks the unofficial re-election campaign kick-offs, especially for those lawmakers in swing districts.

But once a candidate commences a campaign, no vote in Washington can escape scrutiny – especially not on a hot topic like immigration reform.

The calendar, at every turn, is paved with potential pitfalls for immigration in the House.

Tackling immigration quickly after recess might work – if Congress weren’t going to be preoccupied with the political fight that will accompany finalizing the 2014 budget and raising the debt limit.

The early winter months of 2014 are also an option – but there’s always the threat of a looming primaries come spring to make Republicans think twice.

That leaves next summer – but only if Republicans decide that cooperating with Democrats to pass an immigration bill on the eve of a general election will kick some voters into their column, and not send them with celebratory fervor over to the Democrats’ camp.

And lastly, there’s always the lame duck Congress at the tail end of the year. But that will be overshadowed by who knows what election results.

Despite the unrelenting chronology, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is sure that the House will eventually abandon plans to run through immigration as a set of piecemeal bills, and take up the Senate’s compromise bill.

“The House is going to pick it up, the House is going to do it,” Reid told Nevada reporters Wednesday. “I don’t know when. It won’t be in the next two weeks, but they will pass it.”

Whether the House handles immigration comprehensively or in combination, for the various pieces of the immigration puzzle, timing may be everything.

Border Security

It’s difficult for border security to fall out of vogue in the Republican conference, where fences and foot soldiers along the U.S.-Mexico line have been promoted as critical components of immigration reform for years.

But the bar for Republicans is no longer just resources – the want to prove the resources are achieving their aim.

In the House and Senate, a majority of Republican lawmakers have backed a border and worksite security strategy that puts heavy emphasis on triggers: such as Congress cannot possibly contemplate pathways to citizenship until extensive security measures have been implemented resulting in measurable apprehensions, arrests, and illegal migration.

Last month, the Senate passed a comprehensive bill that included security measures more extensive, than any Republican proposal that had been divined in either house. But that arrangement only required that the security materials be rolled out according to a set schedule.

Republicans in the Senate who designed and voted for those security elements have made it their project to try to convince their Republican colleagues that the measures to step up border security are generous enough to demand their support.

But the more time that elapses, the less direct pressure there is on House Republicans to side with the 17 senators who rubber stamped the compromise – and not simply demand even higher, more stringent, results-driven standards in the legislation they approve.

How a lawmakers comes down on that question is sure to play in any Republican primary that may arise.

The Pathway to Citizenship

The most controversial part of the immigration matrix for Republicans is also the most non-negotiable for Democrats.

Three years ago, offering a pathway to citizenship for just DREAMers – young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children who enroll in college or the military – would have been the answer to Reid’s dreams. But coming off the 2012 election and a 67-vote approved Senate immigration bill, that’s no longer good enough.

“The DREAMers are for comprehensive immigration reform,” Reid said Wednesday. “They are not going to be used as a pawn for the Tea Party.”

A pathway to citizenship, however, is the one thing Tea Party Republicans hate most. They have turned on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for advocating for it. They have called for primaries against anyone who might speak out in favor it.

No wonder, then, that Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei’s recent open query for a Republican bill on earned legal status has sounded with all the reverberations of a lone voice in the wilderness.

Once the primary season is through, it might be easier for Republicans – especially the more moderate ones – to take a vote in favor of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants of all ages.

But that’s if – and only if – Republican leaders decide to put a bill that includes it on the House floor.

Tea Party Pressure

The Tea Party is not just a phenomenon Harry Reid loves to rage against – it’s also a faction of the House that bats above its weight class when it comes to pressuring the Republican conference to take increasingly conservative stands.

Tea Party-affiliated members convinced House Speaker John Boehner to all but swear an oath last month that he would not bring up an immigration bill that lacked support from “a majority of the majority” – eschewing a bipartisan coalition in favor of party solidarity.

Senate Republicans have tried to coax Boehner away from this stance – unsuccessfully.

But Tea Party influence comes in waves – and Boehner has past experience in letting it flourish and fade.

For Republicans, Tea Party pressure is at its zenith during the primary season, when ultra-conservative candidates who might not seem to have cross-party appeal can rally support within the Republican Party to challenge incumbents, and win nominations. (Think Sharron Angle.)

A vote for immigration reform, while in keeping with nationwide sentiment that is pro-reform, could easily be a rallying point for conservatives in a Republican primary.

But after the primaries are settled, the threat lessens of Tea Party backlash to a pro-immigration vote. The only significant recourse put-out Tea Partiers have at that point is to withhold their vote for the Republican candidate – a move that makes it easier for the Democratic challenger to win.

The Democrats’ Takeover Strategy

Tea Party pressure is the force pushing Republicans to lean conservative on immigration reform during primary season, but come general election time, the threat of a Democratic challenger can push a Republican incumbent to a more moderate position.

The truth is, Democrats don’t have endless ability to put Republican incumbents in a position to respond to their electoral pressure.

According to the chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, immigration could be the swing issue in 23 House races where an incumbent Republican faces a district with a large Hispanic immigrant population.

That is enough to swing the majority of the House to the Democrats’ favor, as they need to take only 17 seats away from Republicans.

But 23 Republican incumbents in crosshairs is nowhere near a governing plurality in the House Republican conference. In fact, it’s fewer than the number of House Republicans who affiliate with the Tea Party.

Should the House get to next summer with no resolution on immigration, a vote for a comprehensive bill could get certain Republicans in high-immigrant concentration swing districts – such as Nevada’s Rep. Joe Heck – out of a bind.

But if those 23 Republicans don’t find themselves in a particularly tight spot, the GOP may decide there is no need to touch a live wire like immigration reform until the election outcomes are known.

The Hispanic vote

The story of the rising Hispanic vote is well told at this point. In election after election, Hispanic voters have improved turnout and widened victory gaps.

While voters in this bloc rarely cite immigration as their primary public concern, immigration has nonetheless become a key factor in determining how and for whom they vote.

In 2012, many Republicans -- including Nevada’s Sen. Dean Heller -- decided that the Hispanic vote was cleaving too heavily toward Democrats, and that a demonstrable change in immigration stance was necessary to win back community support.

But some Republicans who weathered the 2012 cycle, might also consider themselves immune to the pressure.

Thanks to gerrymandering and population dynamics, the Hispanic vote -- like many minority voting blocs -- is localized, and doesn’t affect that many districts. Again, Democrats see Hispanic voters as a seat-turning force in only 23 congressional races.

And because of the 70-30 split favoring Democrats, the Hispanic vote isn’t a significant factor in most Republican primaries.

Furthermore, with no presidential race in the offing, and no high profile senate race in Nevada either, the immigration issue is not guaranteed as strong a spotlight as in past election cycles.

The challenge for organizers, then, will be to keep the Hispanic community engaged at full throttle for the next year and a half.

If they fail to plead a convincing-enough case, the challenge for incumbent Republicans will be to explain themselves as free thinkers separate from their party’s position -- and hope that voters buy the explanation.

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