Can immigration reform survive the shutdown?

Liz Goodwin
Yahoo News
Yoselin Cano takes part in a vigil for immigrant rights

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Advocates of immigration reform just can’t catch a break. First it was Syria. Now the entire federal government is shut down. And an all but inevitable fight over the debt ceiling in two weeks is likely to push reform plans even further out of the spotlight.

So in an attempt to recapture some of the momentum and urgency the issue attracted after the 2012 election — when GOP leaders conceded they needed to fix the nation’s immigration system in part to attract badly needed Hispanic voters — House Democrats this week released their own version of an immigration reform bill.

The bill would legalize most of the country’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants and largely mirrors the legislation crafted in part by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York that passed out of the Senate this summer, minus an amendment that set aside $38 billion in border security.  

House Republicans have already rejected the Senate comprehensive reform bill, saying they want to reform immigration in a series of smaller steps instead of in one fell swoop. Big disagreements in the GOP caucus remain over whether unauthorized immigrants should be offered an eventual path to citizenship as well. 

Still, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the new House version, which lacks a single Republican co-sponsor, “100 percent bipartisan” at a press conference Wednesday. Democrats and immigration reform advocates also say it can pass the House with 218 votes, because 26 Republicans have said they support a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, one of the most controversial parts of the bill. 

It’s unlikely that Speaker John Boehner would ever bring it to a vote, however, despite the Democrats’ warnings that they will be punished at the ballot box if they do not.

“Once Washington Democrats allow us to reopen the federal government, House Republicans will continue to work on common-sense, step by step reforms to our broken immigration system,” Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement.

Immigration reform advocates are wary — and some expect nothing to get done.

“Unfortunately, Democrats know Republican leadership will not touch anything being led by Leader Pelosi,” said Cesar Vargas, spokesman for the Dream Action Coalition, which represents immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. Vargas told Yahoo News that he believed the Democrats were just playing politics, and knew the bill would not pass.

Others on the front lines of immigration said they felt discouraged that the government shutdown could mean reform had missed its window.

“It's taking immigration reform out of the spotlight,” said North Carolina immigration lawyer Amanda Carrano. “It just seems like nothing’s going to happen.”

Activists are not going down without a fight and have planned 160 events around the country this Saturday and a rally in Washington on Oct. 8. And reform supporters say that Republicans will be reminded of the issue if they’re voted out of office in upcoming midterm elections, or in 2016. (It's unclear if House Republicans would face any repercussions from voters over immigration reform next November — most live in districts without large Latino populations.)

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who was part of a bipartisan working group of House lawmakers working on reform legislation before its Republican members left, said at a press conference Thursday that although Syria and the government shutdown “knocked immigration reform off the front page in English language papers,” the issue is still leading the news in Spanish-language media.

“Republican leadership has apparently walked away from reform and is putting all its energy into denying health care to people,” Gutierrez said, referencing the House GOP’s push to repeal Obamacare, which they’ve attached to the stalemated spending bill.

Gutierrez also added that soon, headlines of the Obama administration’s 2 millionth deportation would hit the news, pressuring the president to again renew his focus on reform. 

Advocates also hope that Republicans will want to tackle immigration again after the partisan squabbling that caused the shutdown, which is unpopular with the American public.

“Now you have the shutdown — this new dramatic symbol of the broken Washington,” said Lynn Tramonte of the pro-reform advocacy group America’s Voice. “They desperately need something to prove that Washington isn't broken. In some ways, this is the easiest way to move back on a bipartisan track.”

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