Republicans running the U.S. House started this session of Congress vowing to consider immigration policy changes that would appeal to Hispanic voters, the nation’s fastest growing voter bloc.
They’re delivering just the opposite.
To win support for border legislation, House Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team yesterday had to add money for National Guard troops along the Texas-Mexico line. They also included a measure to stop protecting some migrant children from deportation, undermining an Obama administration policy that most Hispanic voters support.
“It’s something that I think can be perceived pretty negatively by many in our country,” Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, said in an interview about the measure that would end the deportation protections for children.
The House yesterday voted 223-189 mostly along party lines to spend $694 million -- less than one-fifth of the money President Barack Obama said was needed -- to handle the surge of children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America. The second measure also passed, 216-192.
Though House Republicans delayed leaving Washington for their August break to pass the measures, there’s no chance of either becoming law any time soon. U.S. lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to the Capitol until Sept. 8, when they’ll meet for about two weeks and leave again until after the November election.
The Senate didn’t advance its border plan on July 31 after every Republican and two Democrats voted against it.
“Our party has to have a real awakening that we have to be for some things,” Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, said in an interview. “We need a frontrunner for 2016 that can give us an agenda and give us a vision and we have to unite behind that. Because right now we just have a lot of people with their own agendas out here.”
About 57,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the border from Oct. 1, 2013, through June 15, double the total from the same time a year earlier. Most are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Obama yesterday accused House Republicans of focusing on immigration legislation that is “extreme and unworkable” just to send a message and “check a box” before leaving for their break. Obama asked Congress on July 8 to approve $3.7 billion to handle the influx of unaccompanied children.
“They’re not even trying to solve the problem,” Obama said at a news conference. “This is on an issue that they all insisted to be a top priority.”
Democratic lawmakers said the lack of progress on immigration opens the door for Obama to take executive action ahead of the midterm elections. Obama is considering using his authority to allow millions of undocumented immigrants to obtain work permits and stay in the U.S. legally.
“He has to meet his responsibility to the nation,” Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, told reporters. “The problem’s still out there, and the president is going to have to respond to it.”
Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, blamed the crisis at the border on a lack of leadership by Obama.
“It doesn’t help when there’s no leadership at the White House and the president is basically disagreeing with his own policymakers about what needs to happen,” Texas Senator John Cornyn, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, said in an interview. “So, as usual, nothing happens.”
The changes Boehner and his team offered yesterday were designed to win support from some of the staunchest immigration opponents, including Representative Steve King of Iowa, who in July 2013 said in a TV interview that some immigrant children have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky called the Republican plan a “sensible, fair solution.”
“It beefs up the border,” Rogers told reporters. “It will stop the inflow, and it would humanely treat the ones that are here and humanely transport them back to their home.”
One of the main changes to the bill was adding $35 million to reimburse Texas, which has sent 1,000 National Guard troops to the border. Lawmakers also removed a provision that would have made it easier for Mexican children to try to remain in the U.S., said Representative John Carter, a Texas Republican.
Boehner’s team also needed to offer a vote on a second measure that would prevent Obama from expanding his Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program. The program, which Obama announced ahead of his 2012 re-election, blocks deportation for certain immigrants brought to U.S. as children before 2007.
More than 500,000 immigrants have received the benefit.
Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, said he decided to support leaders’ plan after the changes.
“This was not leadership twisting arms, this was rank-and-file getting together to address problems, leadership listening and coming together with a bill that’s changed,” Meadows said.
Obama won more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2012 re-election. A Latino Decisions poll showed that 58 percent of Latino voters said the “deferred action” policy made them more enthusiastic to support the president.
As a result of the election, the Republican National Committee made outreach to minority voters a key recommendation for the party. On immigration, a report called on the party to “embrace and champion comprehensive” changes.
“If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only,” it said. “Comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all.”
Senate Republicans helped pass a comprehensive immigration plan in that chamber last year. House Republicans have refused to consider it.
Democrats were quick to tie the House Republican border plan to the party’s troubles with Hispanic voters.
“We have seen a continued lack of compassion from our Republican colleagues for Central American children, Latinos and the immigrant community,” Representative Ruben Hinojosa, a Texas Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told reporters yesterday.
Advocates for revamping immigration law said Republicans should be blamed for congressional inaction on the issue. They planned to remind voters of their lawmakers’ opposition to border funding and to a broader rewrite of the immigration policy, akin to what the Senate passed last year.
“They had over a year to put a bill on the floor and they refused to do so,” said Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy and policy for United We Dream, a group that promotes avenues for legal status for immigrant youth. “They won’t do anything.”
Frank Sharry, executive director of advocacy group America’s Voice, said he and other proponents of last year’s Senate bill are “going to make sure that Republicans feel the heat and pay a price come election time.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Michael C. Bender in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Derek Wallbank in Washington at email@example.com; Kathleen Hunter in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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