Opinion: Immigration Reform Faces Hurdles, but Steadily Moves Forward

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker testifies during a meeting of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, which he chairs, on Thursday, April 14, 2011. (National Journal)

The debate over immigration reform may have been overshadowed by coverage of the sequester and Washington dysfunction, but the issue has hardly disappeared. In fact, the immigration reform bill is marching steadily forward.

In February, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce came to an agreement on managing the entry of low-skilled workers into the U.S., clearing an important roadblock for reform. Equally as important, Scott Walker, the firebrand conservative governor of Wisconsin, came out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. Walker joined the growing ranks of conservative voices and tea party leaders calling for, or indicating they're amenable to, a path to citizenship: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as well as Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Sean Hannity. This growing chorus of consensus from conservative elites offers the best hope yet for eventual passage of a comprehensive reform bill.

Political-science research shows that the way that elected officials talk about immigrants and immigration matters — so-called elite cues — help set the tone of the debate, are the most common source of news for the mass media, and have the potential to alter public opinion. In other words, the tacit support from "thought leaders" and political elites in the Republican Party has the potential to temper its nativist wing and open some space for some congressmen to vote for a comprehensive bill.

Danny Hayes, a political scientist at George Washington University, examined elite cues during the last immigration debate, and found that the chief voices of restrictive legislation were primarily GOP congressional members (amplified many times by certain influential media actors), and the chief sources of "welcoming frames" were immigrants themselves.

The debate has started on a different foot in 2013. The tea party and conservative thought leaders mentioned above are joined by bipartisan "gangs" in the Senate and the House, a strong DREAMer movement, and a new coalition of church leaders, law enforcement, and business interests, called "Bibles, Badges, and Business," all loudly trumpeting the positive immigrant and immigration frames.

Indeed, Micah Cohen, writing for FiveThirtyEight, has already found some evidence that opinion toward immigrants from GOP rank and file might be improving.

This isn't to say that the anti-immigrant frame has disappeared. It hasn't. Border security and the rule of law are still dominant concerns of most GOP House members and constituents, many of whom consider a path to citizenship to be just as extreme as mass deportation.

And immense political hurdles still remain. Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has promised to prioritize an immigration bill once the "octogang" has completed its work, a comprehensive bill faces major headwinds in the GOP-controlled House. There, a majority of conservative members are from primarily white districts, and the chairman of the crucial Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has received an A+ rating from a national leading anti-immigrant group, NumbersUSA. Leadership would be unlikely to bring a bill to the floor without a majority of support from the Republican caucus (though House Speaker Boehner has already violated the "Hastert Rule" this session).

The hurdles for comprehensive immigration reform are numerous, but support from some members of the conservative wing of the Republican Party is a promising sign of progress. As long as Congress can pass a bill before the August recess, where immigration reform could become death panels — as members of Congress already are starting to see in angry town halls — the chance of reform is real.

Tyler Reny has studied and lived in Barcelona, Spain, and Buenos Aires, Argentina; interned for Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, in Washington; researched state welfare policy for the Rockefeller Institute in Albany, N.Y.; and currently manages research and evaluation and crafts the social-media presence for the New American Leaders Project. He graduated summa cum laude from Skidmore College and plans on pursuing a Ph.D. in political science.