The new year brings a turnover of control of the House of Representatives from the Democrats to the Republicans and, with it, a change in Congress’ approach to immigration.
In a matter of weeks, Congress will go from trying to help young, illegal immigrants become legal to debating whether children born to parents who are in the country illegally should continue to enjoy automatic US citizenship.
Such a hardened approach — and the rhetoric certain to accompany it — should resonate with the Republican faithful who helped swing the House in Republicans’ favor. However, it could also further hurt the Republican Party in its endeavor to grab a large enough share of the growing Latino vote to win the White House and the Senate majority in 2012.
Legislation to test interpretations of the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment as granting citizenship to children of illegal immigrants will emerge early next session. That is likely to be followed by attempts to force employers to use a still-developing Web system, dubbed E-Verify, to check that all of their employees are in the US legally.
There could be proposed curbs on federal spending in cities that don’t do enough to identify people who are in the country illegally and attempt to reduce the numbers of legal immigrants. Democrats ended the year failing for a second time to win passage of the Dream Act, which would have given hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants a chance at legal status if they attend college or join the military.
House Republicans will try to fill the immigration reform vacuum left by Democrats with legislation designed to send illegal immigrants packing and deter others from trying to enter the US.
Democrats, who will still control the Senate, will be playing defense against harsh immigration enforcement measures, mindful of their need to keep on good footing with Hispanic voters. However, a slimmer majority and an eye on 2012 may prevent Senate Democrats from bringing to the floor any sweeping immigration bill, or even a limited one that hints at providing legal status to people in the country illegally.
US President Barack Obama could be a wild card.
He’ll have at his disposal his veto power should a bill denying citizenship to children of illegal immigrants make it to his desk.
However, Obama has also made cracking down on employers a key part of his administration’s immigration enforcement tactics.
Hispanic voters and their allies will look for Obama to broker a deal on immigration as he did on tax cuts and healthcare. After the Dream Act failed in the Senate this month, Obama said his administration would not give up on the measure.
“At a minimum, we should be able to get Dream done. So I’m going to go back at it,” he said.
The president has taken heavy hits in Spanish-language and ethnic media for failing to keep his promise to address immigration promptly and taking it off the agenda last summer. His administration’s continued deportations of immigrants — a record 393,000 in this fiscal year — have also made his relationship with Hispanic voters tenuous.
John Morton, who oversees the US Immigration and Customs -Enforcement agency, said in a recent conference call that there are no plans to change its enforcement tactics, which are focused on immigrants who commit crimes, but have also led to detaining and deporting many immigrants who have not committed crimes.