What Happened to Immigration Reform?

A powerful, well-organized coalition did everything it could, with no results. Now advocates are preparing to shift from lobbying to revenge.
Immigration protesters in Los Angeles carry an effigy of House Speaker John Boehner. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Last week, John Boehner was having breakfast at his customary spot on Capitol Hill, Pete’s Diner, when he was approached by two teenage girls with a video camera. Clad in a baseball cap and fleece pullover, the speaker nervously fiddled with his ear as the pair told him of their undocumented immigrant parents’ fear of deportation. “I’m trying to find a way to get this thing done,” he told them. “It’s, as you know, not easy. It’s not going to be an easy path forward, but I’ve made it clear since the day after the election that it’s time to get this done.”

Just a few hours later, Boehner, now wearing a suit, addressed reporters in the Capitol. On immigration, his tone was rather less encouraging. “The idea that we’re going to take up a 1,300-page bill that no one had ever read, which is what the Senate did, is not going to happen in the House,” he said. “And frankly, I’ll make clear we have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill.”

For the broad, well-organized coalition of immigration-reform activists, that statement was a stunning blow. If Boehner keeps that pledge, he will have rendered moot the months of wheeling and dealing it took to get a massive, bipartisan bill through the Senate in June, forcing the upper chamber to start from scratch even if the House manages to get its act together and pass its own bill or group of bills—a prospect that appears increasingly unlikely.

That Boehner could make encouraging noises when confronted by activists, then pour cold water on immigration's legislative prospects, neatly summarized the plight of the reformers, many of whom are coming to grips with the possibility that their efforts, despite politicians' apparent receptiveness, have come to naught. The reformers' official line remains one of optimism that the House will act, perhaps even before the end of 2013. But many activists have already begun to take a more aggressive tack, arguing that lobbying is over—it’s time for revenge.

“We can’t force them to get to yes, but we can make them pay a price for getting to no,” said Frank Sharry. An immigration-reform advocate for decades, Sharry heads America’s Voice, the reform coalition’s main clearinghouse. He holds out hope that legislation could still pass the House in the waning days of 2013, he told me, but he and others are preparing to move into a new gear once the calendar flipsone in which their focus will shift to punishing House Republicans. “If this Congress isn’t going to pass immigration reform, let’s elect a Congress that will,” Sharry said.

It is an emotionally wrenching juncture for a movement that, until recently, was riding high. “The reason there’s such a sadness is that we got very close,” said Joshua Culling, a conservative policy strategist who worked on immigration for Americans for Tax Reform. “The momentum for the better part of a year was on our side.”

Conservative commentators like Sean Hannity backed comprehensive reform; the Republican National Committee came out in favor; the Senate Gang of Eight successfully completed its work. The reform coalition, comprising tech executives and evangelical pastors, unions and human-rights groups, agriculture and law enforcement, libertarians and bleeding-heart liberals, kept Democrats largely united while winning over large swaths of the conservative movement. They kept up a blitz of grassroots pressure while their opposition was barely seen.

And yet their incremental successes have failed, so far, to add up to the big goal: getting a law passed. The events of recent weeks have convinced Culling, formerly an optimist, that immigration reform is not likely to get done. Syria and the government shutdown preoccupied the Hill when lawmakers returned from their summer vacation; now, Republicans are loath to change the subject from their winning crusade against the many-splendored disaster that is the health-care law's implementation. Even before Boehner’s comments seemed to shut the door on the only feasible legislative avenue for reform, another GOP leader, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, told advocates there wouldn’t be votes on the issue this year, while Republican Representative Mario Diaz-Balart warned that by 2014 it will be too late to pass anything.

The diverse coalition of immigration activists has managed to remain remarkably unified and even to grow over the past year. Their disappointment is grave. “On the left, you have a bunch of ‘Dreamers’ and undocumented folks who think of themselves as Americans and are still technically criminals,” Culling said. “On the right, you have people who care about the [Republican] Party and feel like this was our one opportunity” to change the way voters perceive the GOP. “Everyone was on board the week after the election, and we pissed it away again.” The movement was no match for the absurd illogic of today’s Washington, where political imperatives, voter preferences, and even the desires of moneyed interests are powerless to move House Republicans off a default stance of “no.”

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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