The ramifications of the November 2 elections that saw the GOP win tremendous gains in Congress are still unfolding. What will be the legislative priorities of the new Republican-controlled House? How will Obama and the Democrat majority in the Senate work with the House on various issues and forge bipartisan cooperation? Will gridlock prevail? Despite these uncertainties, one thing is for certain: the prospects for immigration reform will be dramatically and adversely affected by this recent shakeup.
The 112th Congress will have a markedly different composition than its previous iteration. The House will flip from a 76-seat Democrat majority to a 50-seat Republican majority with some of the new seats being controlled by hard-line immigration conservatives. Meanwhile, the Senate will remain under Democrat control, but with a slimmer majority then what it enjoyed during the 111th Congress, with losses sustained by veteran pro-immigration senators.
With these changes comes a shakeup in the leadership and committee memberships. In the House, several crucial leadership positions are set to change hands when Congress is sworn in on January 5, and the Republicans become the party in power. The most visible change will come as Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) hands over the gavel as Speaker of the House to John Boehner (R-OH), who will now set the House’s agenda and decide when to take up which issues. To say Rep. Boehner has been less than complimentary about comprehensive immigration reform is an understatement.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has been tapped to take over as Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, the committee that oversees immigration. Rep. Smith has led the fight against immigration reform for nearly two decades and is the architect of some of the most unforgiving provisions in current law. In turn, he is widely expected to appoint Rep. Steve King (R-IA) to chair the House Subcommittee on Immigration. Representative King is a Tea Party conservative who relied heavily on virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric during the campaign, so his control over the Immigration Subcommittee is a significant obstacle to real progress. Rep. King is also on record favoring a constitutional amendment to the 14th Amendment to keep children of undocumented aliens from becoming U.S. citizens by birth, and has voiced support for the Arizona law, S.B. 1070, a draconian law that created a storm of controversy when it was enacted last May. Both Smith and King have called for tough enforcement measures and have been fierce critics of legalization proposals. In addition, they are likely to conduct oversight hearings demanding that the Obama Administration prosecute more aggressively the immigration laws on the books.
While it’s hard to find a pro-immigration spin to the results in the House, the outcome in the Senate offered a bit more cause for optimism. The Hispanic and largely pro-immigration voting bloc was held largely responsible for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid keeping his Nevada seat as well as the seats of other pro-immigration candidates — Patty Murray (D-WA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) — whose races were some of the closest this year. These victories underscore the significance of the Latino vote and signal to both parties that campaigns fueled by anti-immigrant rhetoric do not guarantee results at the polls. Fortunately, the Senate immigration leadership positions are not likely to change. Senator Reid will remain Majority Leader and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is expect to remain chair of the Immigration Subcommittee.
All told, those who oppose comprehensive immigration reform and other pro-immigration legislation will hold a strong and loud voice with tremendous power in the 112th Congress. But, with a President still committed to comprehensive immigration reform, a pro-immigration, majority leadership in the Senate, and a populace moderate on immigration, the prospects for positive immigration reform legislation — perhaps more likely piecemeal than comprehensive — are not entirely lost.