As Congress enters its August recess with sweeping immigration reform legislation on hold, anxious Democrats and Republican proponents of a comprehensive overhaul are warning that a narrow timeline awaits lawmakers when they return. And they are using the break to drive home their belief that a comprehensive bill is the only way to move forward.
The U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive bill, S. 744, before the July 4 holiday. That measure includes a 13-year-path-to-citizenship component and adds significant border-security measures, including a doubling of the ranks of U.S. Border Patrol officers and 700 miles of total fencing on the southern border.
But Republican U.S. House leaders, including Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said weeks ago that the lower chamber would not consider the Senate version but rather craft its own — or possibly introduce several less-sweeping measures — at its own pace.
That includes a border-security measure by McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which he said last month could be a starting point in how the House decides to move forward.
The bill, H.R. 1417, passed unanimously by McCaul’s committee in May, would set a goal of a 90 percent apprehension rate at the border and require the Department of Homeland Security to create metrics that would measure progress. It would also increase the amount of technology used at the country’s southern border with Mexico. A similar amendment by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, failed to pass the Senate.
The bill could get a vote after the recess, but it’s unclear what path or timeline the U.S. House will follow when it reconvenes.
“I hope to vote on H.R. 1417 as early as September when we return from the recess,” McCaul said. “The Border Security Results Act passing the House will put us significantly closer to finally gaining operational control of the border with a valid verifiable way to measure progress.”
But grass-roots groups and some Texas Democrats are trying to ratchet up the pressure on certain House members during the waning weeks of summer, urging them to consider a more inclusive bill. On Thursday morning, more than 30 activists were arrested during an immigration-related protest on Capitol Hill.
"It is time to let the bipartisan majority that exists in the House of Representatives today have a vote in favor of reform that includes a path to citizenship," said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America's Voice, and one of the protesters detained.
On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, joined U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., a firebrand on the immigration reform front, during a news conference organized by the Alliance for Citizenship. The event unveiled dozens of recess events aimed at rousing local support for a comprehensive bill. They include town hall forums in several Republican congressional districts including those represented by McCaul; Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land; Randy Weber, R-Pearland; and Blake Farenthold. R-Corpus Christi.
“If our communities pull together in August and continue to press their representatives, those stonewalling progress will have no choice but to let us fix our nation’s broken immigration system and take a vote on comprehensive reform when we get back to D.C.,” Castro said Wednesday.
U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, said that support from faith-based, business and labor communities for reform leaves lawmakers little choice.
“In a democracy, it has to mean something that the majority of Americans — including a majority of Republicans — support a path to earned citizenship,” he said in an email, adding that without action, the GOP will continue to have extremists as the party’s only ambassadors to Latinos.
“If House Republicans don’t get a comprehensive bill out of the House, Iowa's Steve King — who never saw a fire he didn't add fuel to — will continue to be the Republican Party's ambassador to the Latino community,” he said, a reference to King’s recent remarks comparing immigrants known as “Dreamers” to drug mules. He added that “failure to act will be a huge political liability for the Republicans.”
The Alliance for Citizenship’s news conference came a day after high-profile group of Texas Republicans asked Republican congressmen in a letter to move forward with a comprehensive measure. They include Don Evans, a former U.S. commerce secretary; Brad Bailey, the co-founder and CEO of Texas Immigration Solution; Charles Foster, the chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership’s task force on immigration; and Jacob Monty, a member of the board of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas. Doing nothing, the group says, is “de facto amnesty.”
Bailey said the goal is to let GOP lawmakers know they do have support and to drown out the few but loud voices standing in the way of progress.
“Kicking a can down the road is not an option,” he said. “The vocal minority has hijacked this issue. There are a lot more people that support this than who don’t.”
Despite the U.S. House’s refusal to consider the Senate’s version of the bill, the White House continues to tout the measure as an economic boon to the country. In its latest salvo, the Obama administration released a study indicating Texas’ agriculture industry has more to lose than most states if a comprehensive bill fails.
The Senate bill would lead to an eventual path to legal status and citizenship for the 1.5 million undocumented agricultural workers in the country and their families, the White House says. Texas, according to the report, has more than 247,400 farms and produces about $21 billion in agriculture sales. About 35 percent of the workforce in the sector is made up of noncitizens. Texas could experience a short-term loss as high as $324 million, according to the study, if immigrant labor was eliminated.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2014, rebuked the study and called it more of the same.
“In an attempt to give cover to the misguided ‘Gang of Eight’ bill, the President continues to advocate for the same solution that was passed in 1986 – Amnesty,” he said in an email. “I am hopeful our U.S. House passes a meaningful bill that puts border security first and upholds what it means to be a citizen of this great country. The American Dream is very much alive, and we welcome all who choose to abide by our laws. Our president needs to stop playing political poker games and start supporting laws that will truly address our border security problem.”