Coming off a successful August of immigration reform activism in the states and districts of Members of Congress, reform advocates are in the driver’s seat. But to judge from the defeatism in the community, you would never know it. I don’t worry when the pundits assure us that immigration reform can’t be done; negativity is their job. But I do worry when we start to believe them. Reform advocates will only lose this debate if we allow ourselves to be defeated. If we buy into the assumption that nothing can happen, then we deserve to lose. But the immigrants don’t deserve to lose. There’s too much at stake. We have to rediscover the positive attitude—the confidence that we will win—that has carried us this far.
Remember: According to the smart guys in the media, nothing that has happened so far could happen. A year ago, the immigration debate that we are having today couldn’t happen—but it did. Nine months ago, a bipartisan group of senators—including some who helped defeat reform just a few years ago—couldn’t come together to introduce a comprehensive reform bill—but they did. Six months ago, you could never put that bill through regular order and have a civilized debate and a successful markup—which preserved the bipartisan, comprehensive essence of the bill—in the Senate Judiciary Committee—but we did. Then, we were assured, the bill could never survive the Senate floor, where it would be picked apart, filibustered, and defeated or, at best, emerge in some grotesque form that no one could support. But, as we all know, it passed intact, with a bipartisan, 68-vote majority.
Since then, the smart guys have been busy telling us that none of this could happen in the House. Didn’t we remember August? The last time Congress had this debate, the anti-reform forces mobilized huge demonstrations during the August recess that sent pro-reform senators running in panic for the exits; surely this would happen again. But the opposite happened. What August showed was that the anti-reform forces have lost their ability to mobilize around this issue. We’re the ones who can do that now—and we did. Because of August, most Members of Congress understand now that, politically, they can vote for immigration reform if they have to.
Now our job is to make them have to. We must not misunderstand August. Winning August doesn’t translate automatically into winning the House. It only makes winning the House possible. If we had lost August, we couldn’t win the House. Now we can—but we still have to do it.
The smart guys are now telling us: See, you made all that noise in August, but so what? The Republicans are still saying no, we won’t do this and we won’t do that. Of course they are; that’s what they do. August didn’t make anyone do anything; August just set the table for the squeeze that we haven’t even started to put on the Republicans yet, but that we must now apply.
Since the beginning of this process last November, when Hispanics and other immigrants re-elected President Obama, the Republican Party has faced an existential decision: Do we change our policies so as to broaden our base and remain relevant as a national party, or do we continue to base our party on what one Republican leader characterized as “angry white men” in gerrymandered House districts? The latter course will marginalize the party in national (presidential) politics for the foreseeable future. It will “California-ize” the Republican Party, reducing it to the irrelevancy that the California party has already become, in large part because of its anti-immigrant stance. The internal battle over the future of the party has been playing out since November; the immigration debate is one of the venues for this epic struggle.
If we panic because the Republicans continue to proclaim that they won’t do comprehensive, they won’t do citizenship, they won’t do the Senate bill, etc.—if we decide now that we should compromise on half-measures, then the battle is over, and the Republicans never have to decide what kind of party they are. They will do those things if they have to. We have to make them have to.
Three things must now happen. First, the President just has to get off the sidelines of this debate. I count myself among the President’s strongest supporters, but I am amazed at how difficult it is for him to lead on this issue unless he is forced to. When the bill was in the Senate, he had the excuse that the players were asking him to stay in the background and let them lead. That may have been the right way to support the process. But it only worked because there was a process. There is no process in the House. The House must be forced to act—and the President, as the head of this government, has an essential role. He has to engage—and the immigrant community should make it clear that it expects him to do so.
Second, Democrats have to take the battle to the Republicans and stop letting them off the hook. Politico reported on September 23 that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is considering introducing a comprehensive bill. Halleluiah! Somebody do something! Don’t just wring your hands over Republican inaction. Give us something to mobilize around.
Third, the Republican “elders,” for lack of a better name, have to step up their game and make it clear to the House Republican Party that they will not permit a minority of die-hard Tea Party Republicans to torpedo a great party over this issue. Many Republicans could vote for immigration reform and survive politically, if they have to. Ultimately, it will be other Republicans that make them do it. But this is a very difficult and uncomfortable thing to do, and they won’t do it unless we make it clear that they have to.
As many on our side have said many times, a majority of the House favors comprehensive immigration reform. The House would pass the Senate bill today, if the leadership would allow a vote. The problem is getting a vote. We cannot permit the Republicans to avoid a vote on this issue. We need to make it simply too uncomfortable to continue to block a vote. We can do that—but it takes hardball, which we haven’t started to play yet. Let’s get back in the game.
Of course, it’s not impossible that the best strategy will ultimately fail—that in the end, the Republicans will choose suicide over immigration reform. If it comes to that, then that is the time to face the decisions on whether to accept something less than citizenship, or other half-measures. We are nowhere near that time yet; the real battle for the House is only beginning.
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