Politics

In August, Silence = Amnesty

Nice Fallback Position You’ve Got There: Both pro- and anti-legalization forces in the immigration fight will be trying to make their cases to House members–especially Republican members–during the August recess. But here’s the fundamental asymmetry in this debate–the pro-legalization forces don’t really need to show up. The anti-legalizers do. Pro-side Democrats can be distracted (by the need to defend Obamacare, for example) or they can just be lazy and unmotivated. As long as the antis are also unmotivated, legalization will win. Tie goes to the border-jumper.

Why is this? Well, look at the state of play as Congress goes home: The Senate has passed an amnesty bill. The House would probably pass one too–with mainly Democratic votes–if it ever gets to the floor. And the House’s GOP leadership almost certainly wants some kind of legalization to come to the floor. Speaker Boehner is not publicly committed to one approach, but the #2 Republican, Eric Cantor, is off on a kind of Amnestypalooza  tour  in which practically writes romantic verses praising veteran pro-legalization agitator Luis Gutierrez. (““[T]he leadership you’re providing through thick and thin right now as we try and navigate these very tough political times in choppy waters. My hat is off to you. I’m very grateful.”) Last year’s GOP VP candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, is actively lobbying for legalization (on the explicit grounds that otherwise Wisconsin dairy farmers might have to raise wages!).  Meanwhile key House Judiciary chair Bob Goodlatte is playing some kind of squidgy middle game, declaring his opposition to a “special pathway to citizenship” for those who illegally crossed the border as adults, but leaving the door open for some other type of legalization attached to a non-special pathway.**

I doubt even these GOP leaders themselves know what they’re going to do in the coming months, or maybe even what they want to end up with. But it’s clear they face pressure to pass a legalization bill–and that the pressure is internal, not external.  If they let amnesty come to a vote, it won’t be because La Raza stages 360 events or Frank Sharry chains himself to the White House fence. It will be because big Republican donors, businessmen and consultants are whispering in their ears. The only force stopping them, on the other hand, is external:  fear of a rebellion by the GOP caucus. And the main thing driving such a rebellion would be intense opposition from GOP voters back home.***

If those voters seem to care–as polls show they do–legalization can be blocked. If not, it will go through. It’s that simple.

Pro-amnesty demonstrations get a lot of press, but they aren’t really part of this equation. If they don’t happen, amnesty still wins–as long as GOP opponents don’t make themselves heard.

This asymmetry has at least three implications:

1. All the fuss from Latino amnesty groups is probably counterproductive. So far, the “comprehensive” legalizers have had great success by distracting their opponents (e.g. with Democratic scandals, perversely) and lulling them to sleep (e.g. with hour long Obama speeches on income inequality). As Dan Nowicki of the Arizona Republic put it,“Opponents … are expected to make their voices heard, but the House’s inaction so far has provided little to galvanize them.”  Show them Latino activists and self-righteous Dreamers getting arrested, blocking traffic and demanding citizenship for lawbreakers–well, there’s something to react against.

2. The “Defund Obamacare” drive helps amnesty: Whatever the substantive merits of Republicans making a last pre-rollout stand against Obamacare, it clearly will aid amnesty by dividing attention and anger on the right.  Every constituent who is focused on complaining about the Democrats’ takeover of a sixth of the economy is one less constituent complaining about the Gang of 8.  Boehner’s aides have acknowledged this pro-amnesty effect–boasted about it, even. Why would ostensible legalization foes like Ted Cruz push the Obamacare distraction, then? They’re not going to stop Obamacare, but they might get us amnesty.

3. You can’t win if you don’t play: If you’re an amnesty foe, it’s ‘or forever hold your peace’ time. If you’ve never been to a Congressman’s town hall, and never want to go, this would be a good time to make an exception. Phone calls and (especially) letters also have a disproportionate impact.

Opponents of legalization certainly shouldn’t start out discouraged. Think of it this way: both parties’ leaders have attractive second-best fallback positions. Democrats (including Obama) would clearly like to pass a “legalization first” bill. But if that fails, they think they’ll have an issue to bash Republicans with (especially among Latinos). Similarly, Boehner’s crew probably thinks it’s best for Republicans to get the immigration issue “off the table.” But if they don’t, they at least want to make sure amnesty dies in a way that doesn’t make them look heartless or anti-Latino. (‘Hey, we supported citizenship for the DREAMers!’)

Amnesty opponents don’t have to crush their foes, in other words. We just have to get everyone to fall back on their fallback positions. Plan B all around! Win-win.

Nor is this a debate we’ll necessarily have, year after year, until an amnesty passes. If the Republican base holds firm, blocks legalization and Republicans still do well in the 2014 elections (as expected), it seems entirely possible that the next immigration reform debate will center on a different approach–securing the border first, and only then planning legalization. That’s unacceptable to Democrats now, but it doesn’t have to be–if the right people show up at town halls in August.

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**–Goodlatte also says “it’s imperative that enforcement be in place before any consideration of legalization,” though it’s not clear if “in place” means that enforcement mechanisms (fence, E-Verify, etc) have to actually be up and working or if it simply means that laws mandating them have to have been passed. If Goodlatte really means the former, that is almost certainly a dealbreaker for Democrats.

***–As Charlie Cook notes, GOP representatives from anti-amnesty districts may privately favor legalization–but they’re still scared of their constituents.