Immigration-Reform Opponents Lack Strategy

Rebecca Kaplan
National Journal

In the week since the “Gang of Eight” released its 844-page immigration bill, there have been three days of hearings featuring 26 witnesses. The compressed time frame has left opponents of the bill little time to read it, let alone formulate a strategy to alter the measure to their liking or kill it entirely.

That was probably the point.

Many of the Republican lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee and their staffs are still reading and analyzing the bill, aides said. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking member on the committee, told reporters Tuesday he’s only read the first 50 pages. Most haven’t even gotten to the process of thinking about amendments for the bill’s markup, which is likely to begin in about two weeks when the Senate returns from recess.

“The strategy now seems to be to use delay to buy time and hope that they can build opposition to the overall bill, and that’s exactly the same thing that happened the last time around,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

Grassley suggested he’ll try to chip away at the amount of discretion the proposed legislation would give to the Homeland Security Department, an issue several Republicans raised during the hearings. “I don’t have any specific amendment in mind right now. I have a generic amendment in mind,” he said. “We should legislate and not delegate. And that’s a lesson we should have learned before Obamacare.”

Two GOP aides to Judiciary Committee members described an informal effort by a handful of senators to compare public statements by the Gang of Eight to the text of the bill. Though there’s been some coordination between their offices, but they have yet to develop a plan to roll out their findings.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a veteran of the last immigration fight, seems best prepared to counter the Gang of Eight. Just 15 minutes before the group’s press conference to unveil its bill last week, Sessions and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., held one of their own, featuring several law-enforcement officials and the head of the union for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to criticize the bill as amnesty over enforcement.

Sessions has also warned about the effect that legalization and more visas might have on employment opportunities and wages for American workers, which is an angle that one of the biggest advocacy groups calling for lower immigration levels will pursue as it tries to drum up public opposition to the bill.

Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, said his group plans to concentrate its messaging on Alaska, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, hoping that voters will help push the senators in those states to oppose the bill.

“Our plan is that it does not get out of the Senate, and we still feel fairly confident of that. It’s a big battle,” he said.

Public outcry against the 2007 immigration bill contributed to its demise, but opponents of the Gang of Eight’s legislation have been slower to mobilize voters. Unlike the National Rifle Association and its campaign against gun control, there is no single, major lobbying force working against immigration reform.

The Gang of Eight has also played aggressive defense with its bill, rushing to quash what they see as misinterpretations about the legislation and to address issues that could scuttle it. Former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, who worked on the issue during the last fight, said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., did a better job of laying the groundwork for the bill than Republicans have in the past. Rubio has also reached out to all of his Republican colleagues for one-on-one meetings and solicited ideas to improve the bill.

“It may be that the group has touched enough bases, especially with the conservative-commentary community, that they have obviated one of the big sources of opposition from last time,” Kyl said.

Lawmakers such as Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, will likely advocate to secure the border and make some reforms to the legal immigration system without tackling the issue of citizenship. During the Judiciary Committee’s hearings, Cruz said: “I hope that reform legislation will not be held hostage to an issue that is deeply, deeply divisive, namely a pathway to citizenship.”

Sessions is urging his colleagues not to hesitate to speak up. “Senators are going to find out that the bill is on the floor being rammed through and they haven’t thought about it nor have they gotten the information they need to make a good decision,” he said.