Moving on.

So, comprehensive immigration reform isn’t going to happen — therefore neither are further updates to this blog.

Of course, I’m not ceasing to write. Rather than starting another topic-based blog, I’m going to be posting things on topics of interest — immigration, Arizona, and general politics are favorites — over at Medium.

Maybe the imagined ingredients of comprehensive immigration reform will be reheated again, but the ride (in Congress, at least) seems over for now. I’ll certainly be writing on any upcoming executive action on other platforms. Thanks for reading!

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Calling it a “humanitarian crisis” may have unintended consequences

Declaring a “humanitarian crisis” at the border might only harden the roadblocks to treating migrants humanely.

Everyone, the Administration and Rick Perry alike, is discussing the influx of unaccompanied minors at the border as being some kind of emerging “humanitarian” situation. Portraying these children as refugees of a sort may seem to offer a way of talking about this immigration problem in a less heated and more sympathetic way than the normal, security-fixated tone of the immigration debate.

FRONTEX, the EU border agency, has increasingly emphasized a humanitarian role in rescuing migrants at sea -- with the result of more security resources (FRONTEX image)

FRONTEX, the EU border agency, has increasingly emphasized a humanitarian role in rescuing migrants at sea — with the clearest result being more security resources (FRONTEX image)

But we should be wary of accepting declarations of “humanitarian” emergencies at the border. That’s because the practical reaction to a “humanitarian crisis” isn’t really that different from the reaction to a security crisis, playing into the hands of those with ever-escalating border security demands. Further, associating a border “crisis” with the “humanitarian” only further threatens to bring the border security debate to the topic of how we deal with refugees and asylum seekers, which up to this point the US has been fortunate to mostly avoid. It may not be able to be helped, but sensationalist talk of humanitarian crises or emergencies should probably be avoided, supplanted by a more prosaic discussion of problems, needs and facts on the ground.

Less sympathy toward refugees

One of the clearest differences between immigration politics in the US and Europe is the extent to which asylum and refugee issues are front and center in the latter, while in the US immigration immigration controversies have been focused elsewhere. I see it as fortunate that US politics hasn’t suffered from occasional acute panics about “bogus asylum seekers” that have warped asylum policy in many European countries. It may seem that by putting the children showing up at the southwest border under the protective “humanitarian” umbrella, we are insulating them from the ferocity of border-security politics. Instead, we might just be bringing the ferocity of border-security politics into the way we deal with those seeking refuge in our country.

As nativist protests erupt in some places where unaccompanied children or mothers and their children arrive after being used from Texas, what the “humanitarian” label has accomplished is not the creation of some alternative mode of politics for dealing with these children and their mothers, but rather skepticism and panic towards those seeking refuge. This may not be avoidable, but it is ugly, and a political tone about refugees more similar to what has become dominant in Europe is a worrying possible result.

A “humanitarian crisis” and a “security crisis”: Less different than you might think

Discussion of “humanitarian crises” at borders have a way of only adding fire to ongoing security arguments. A “humanitarian crisis” is actually well equipped to play into the hands of border hawks with seemingly unlimited desires for security resources: Successfully argued “humanitarian crises” at the border seemingly result in more security resources for security organs.

The reason for this is that, in a “humanitarian crisis,” the key word isn’t really “humanitarian” but is instead “crisis.” The situation brings forth an “emergency” way of dealing with things that tends to reinforce security organizations’ way of doing business, rather than actually changing the orientation of policy toward a more “humanitarian” mode. So, in trying to get attention and sympathy for child migrants by talking about a “humanitarian crisis,” what’s inadvertently being emphasized is the element of “crisis.” The clearest response to this is more security, rather than the conversion of security organs into humanitarian organizations — and when more security is proposed, that’s difficult to counter, because it’s a crisis, right?

FRONTEX, the European Union’s border agency, offers an example. FRONTEX has increasingly argued that it has a humanitarian mission in rescuing migrants trying to reach Europe by sea, which has won it more resources but not resulted in a very substantive change from before in how policy approaches the issue of migrants dying at sea. My University of Edinburgh colleague Nina Perkowski discusses this in a very good unpublished working paper, the title of which — “The role of the exception in the EU border regime: from security to humanitarian emergencies?” — captures the gist of this observation. What’s gone on with FRONTEX and migrants to Europe dying at sea may shadow what the eventual response to the current “humanitarian crisis” is going to be in the US: More security, piled on top of the already-record levels of security, well beyond diminishing returns, but perhaps no more hope for the migrants arriving at the border, and no real way of addressing the underlying problem.

How do you avoid the political bind?

If Texas's John Cornyn is more than happy to talk about a "humanitarian crisis", that says all you need to know. (JohnCornyn flickr photostream)

If Texas’s John Cornyn is more than happy to talk about a “humanitarian crisis,” that says all you need to know. (JohnCornyn flickr photostream)

The only apparent way to avoid this discussion of a “crisis” is to treat the fact that there are unaccompanied minors as not justifying exceptional changes in the way that border security operates — as, basically, something to be dealt with, but not a “crisis.” The media is unlikely to cooperate on this, particularly as Fox News has relished talking about this in crisis dimensions. To be sure, there are more unaccompanied minors than the system was built to handle, but whether this constitutes a policy problem to be dealt with swiftly or a “crisis” is another matter. The increase in unaccompanied minors has been visible for a couple of years, so arguing that in the past few months it has not suddenly become a “crisis” that the normal order of border security is totally unequipped to deal soon with is not far-fetched. The White House seems to very carefully be using the term “humanitarian situation” rather than “crisis” or “emergency”, but that language might not be un-charged enough.

Meanwhile, the Administration’s request for “emergency” funds to build the infrastructure needed to deal with more unaccompanied minors from countries with which the US does not share a land border seems likely to be hijacked by the secure-the-border crowd.

The fact that some of those crowing loudest about a “humanitarian” crisis at the border are border hawks who are using the developments to push for meeting their previously favored policy of endless security ramp-ups on the border shows it pretty clearly: Talking in sympathetic tones about a “humanitarian” crisis can have unintended political consequences.

What’s the point of delaying the deportation review?

Deportations continue. (ICE photo)

No changes here. (ICE photo)

The White House recently moved slightly toward reconsidering deportation policies that have removed a record number of immigrants from the United States. Now even that reconsideration (not even a policy change) is on pause:

President Barack Obama has asked his Homeland Security chief to hold off on completing a review of U.S. deportation policies until the end of the summer, senior White House officials said Tuesday, in a move aimed at salvaging any hopes for Congress to act on immigration this year. … “The president really wants to maximize the opportunity to get a permanent solution enacted, which requires Congress,” said Cecilia Munoz, the director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council.

A permanent solution certainly does require Congress, but most congressional Republicans still don’t seem compelled. In the meantime, absent some under-the-radar changes, problematic deportation policies continue. Why? So the president can show Republicans that they can “trust” him on immigration, and that he won’t move until they’ve slammed the door super hard.

Here is the inevitable conclusion after five years of immigration back-and-forth under Obama: The “can we trust the Administration?” line is not genuine, nor is any hand-wringing about the administration. Chuck Schumer already called this out back in February, proposing that an agreed reform be implemented entirely during the next administration. (Necessarily, under any bill, this would mostly be the case anyway.) Of course, that proposal got the conversation nowhere, because the conversation is not really about the administration.

Seriously, guys, we can be trusted. (Flickr user katerkate, Creative Commons.)

Tell your congressman we can be trusted! (Flickr user katerkate, Creative Commons.)

The only really significant variable in whether immigration reform passes appears to be whether enough Republicans are comfortable enacting some kind of broad legalization. This has everything to do with their own primary voters and nothing to do with anything Obama could do, after five years of record enforcement, to build “trust” or give them “space.” (Or with how much security is piled onto an eventual reform bill.)

If the administration proceeded in making deportation more humane, it might provide those Republican congressmen a useful talking point in rejecting reform. But would it have any effect on the fate of a nearly dead bill?

Instead, maybe moving ever so slightly forward on changes to deportation policy might actually show Republicans that they can’t get their preferred policies without cooperating on a reform proposal. This will not work in the short term, and its long-term success is hardly guaranteed, but this is also apparently true of the strategy that if you enforce the law in a way closer to what Republicans want, then compromise will eventually become immanent. Meanwhile immigration policy is still a problem, which executive action might marginally (but helpfully) address.

So, what exactly is delaying the deportation review going to achieve?

Immigration reform isn’t dead. It’s morphing.

The idea of getting a comprehensive immigration reform bill through Congress has been in trouble for a while now, but supporters have largely avoided uttering the word “dead.” Benjy Sarlin comes close today:

His central point, about the slim hopes for meaningful legislation this year, is indisputable. So, yes, immigration reform is dead or dying if what we mean by “immigration reform” is simultaneous legislative action on a lot of different areas of immigration in 2014. I would suggest that in a broader sense, immigration reform is not dead: instead, it’s in the process of morphing around the political obstacles that now seem immovable. This is only temporary solace to opponents of reform.

What is “immigration reform” transforming into? Some observations:

1. Immigration reform will no longer mean “comprehensive” — and that’s a good thing.

The political calculation that immigration reform should only pass if it’s comprehensive — that is, if it addresses legalization and authorized flows only if it also tackles border security — has completely collapsed. The Senate bill had a ton of border security provisions in it, and that was not enough to move House Republicans to work from it. There’s no reason to pretend anymore than enough Republicans can be moved by border-security promises to marshal through meaningful immigration reform. Republicans’ declining to act now leaves little doubt for this. In the future, legislators pushing immigration reform can easily call the bluff that adding thousands and thousands of Border Patrol agents will make the political difference, and get down to the kernel of the issue: Whether immigration reform passes is simply about whether there is enough support for expanding legal channels and enacting a legalization. There’s no compelling reason for supporters to accede to ever-escalating security demands. Addressing reform will now be a matter of pushing through those bits that can be achieved politically, which, after years of trying to get a comprehensive bill and failing and with no end to this pattern in sight, may now be the best possible outcome in terms of policy.

This possum, like the idea of immigration reform, is not as dead as it may seem.

This possum, like the idea of immigration reform, is not as dead as it may seem.

2. Immigration reform will be fought on more clearly partisan terms

What Republicans’ refusal to move on immigration reform suggests is that advocates basically have to resort to a strategy of punishing recalcitrant Republicans if they want something to move. Most House Republicans aren’t vulnerable, so they won’t be scared by this. But this development would mean dropping the concept that immigration reform has to be bipartisan. This is more potentially helpful than it may at first sound. Sometimes there’s no substitute in politics to making the other side hurt electorally as a result of a decision they’ve made: The 2012 election is the only reason that immigration reform was on the table in the first place. Rather than involving complicated cross-party negotiations, various immigration reform measures become things that are expected to be pushed through as part of the basic policy plank of one of those parties. Some number of Republicans under pressure could also be expected to come on board — but, as suggested earlier, this time without all of the leverage to demand security measures (which make too little political difference anyway), and instead simply because they are under pressure to support legal channels/legalization on their own merits. In the future, some moderate Republicans might be pressured to vote for a legalization as a stand-alone bill — a concept that is presently unthinkable because of how entangled the current concept of “immigration reform” is with comprehensiveness and bipartisan compromise.

3. Immigration reform will mean executive action

This one is crystal-clear. It seems pretty apparent that if the president can do DACA (which most agree he can), he can also defer deportation regarding other categories of people. Deferred action is less a legal issue than a matter of what is possible politically. With Republicans refusing to play ball on an issue everyone agrees is of national importance, the president is receiving a lot more political latitude to act in relation to other segments of the unauthorized population. On a practical level, this means that opponents effectively have forfeited their say in terms of enforcement. Paradoxically, the greatest possibility for more enforcement in the long run is through a reform bill. Most voters already agree that most of the people here should be legalized anyway, so little political hay can be made from the president declining to deport members of that very same group.

***

This is not what supporters had in mind for 2013-2014, but if the dream of a comprehensive bill is not achievable, I, for one, welcome the prospect for a novel paradigm in immigration politics. Immigration problems remain pressing, so in that sense, immigration reform is un-killable. Immigration reform does not die; it is just changing.

Arizona isn’t really deviant.

“The country doesn’t understand you people. Can you explain Arizona to the rest of us?”

Christmas in Arizona really does have to do with it.

Christmas in Arizona really does have to do with it.

If you’re from Arizona, and especially if you live elsewhere, you have grown familiar with variations of this question, which Arizona Republic columnist EJ Montini says an out-of-state reporter posed to him in regards to SB1062. It’s understandable. Through SB1062 this year, SB1070 a few years ago, the Jared Loughner shootings, etc., Arizona has become the stock example of a weird place with weird people that produces strange cultural concepts and bewildering politics. The idea that Arizona is, at essence, kind of a wacko place is something that even Arizona progressives occasionally champion as an outlet for their continual frustration — Montini does this, for instance, in writing about the wrong-headed views Arizona politics takes on guns and gays. (A critique of a situation that is a problem, but is hardly unique to Arizona.)

Does Arizona have its share of unfortunate politics? Absolutely, and I don’t mean to excuse them. There’s a different question at play here. Is Arizona that deviant place represented by the myth? It’s not, and it shouldn’t be understood that way. I think getting to the essence of this issue depends on the question posed to Montini: “The country doesn’t understand you people” (my emphasis).

Why is it that people find Arizona in particular so hard to understand? Is that somehow the fault, abstractly, of Arizona, or, a bit more particularly, its people? “Can you explain Arizona to the rest of us?”

I’ll start trying.

***

Let’s think about Christmas. (It’s a pertinent example that I promise this will relate to the larger point.)

Arizona may have some odd aspects about it, but how odd these things are considered by the rest of the country also comes down to a lack of understanding. There is a failure of imagination when it comes to trying to grasp Arizona — whenever I’ve lived away from my home in Phoenix, I’ve seen this especially at Christmas.

No.

This man takes an unreflective East Coast point of view.

Images of Christmas are, for me, almost-ripe oranges on the trees, luminarias, al fresco dining (in slightly warmer years), and playing outside with your toys. In wanting home, as everyone does around Christmas, I don’t want snow or any of that. (I generally find snow annoying.) This confuses people. I have met many Easterners who insist that Christmases are properly white and cold, with logs on the fire and warm cocktails and everything. Dominant culture does little to challenge this kind of belief.

As far as I know, a large chunk of the Christian world (possibly even a majority) live in relatively warmer climates where it never snows on Christmas. There is nothing inherently bizarre about associating non-snowy or anti-snowy things with Christmas. Yet the Arizona Christmas is, to a lot of people, weird.

The Christmas example is one particular form of a hang-up people have about Arizona’s climate — an attitude which, I would argue, reflects larger imaginative difficulties that people have surrounding Arizona’s cultural situation, way of life, and politics. Of course, it’s completely understandable not to like really, really hot weather (most people in the Arizona deserts find summers a pain), but what is at issue here is not a difference in preference, but rather cultural confusion.

A chief expression of this confusion is the genre of thought that essentially argues that Arizona is uninhabitable. I don’t mean to defend current patterns of resource consumption, but people have been living in deserts forever, and there’s nothing inherently more habitable about the quite cold winters of the Northeastern U.S. (which shocked and, initially at least, killed our European forebears, who came from more temperate climates).

These have been happening forever, guys.

These have been happening a long time, guys.

Or the haboobs. The nation has become entranced in the last few years by these things we used to just call “dust storms.” The apocalyptic images give the sense of Arizona as place apart, and probably doomed. I was initially a bit confused by the the trend of haboob porn, since these storms have been happening my whole life without much note. Maybe they have been getting somewhat more severe as a result of climate change, but they are certainly no more apocalyptic or alarming than the snowstorms that substantively paralyze Eastern cities on a regular basis. A haboob will bring down a few branches and leave dust on your car.

People’s are also bewildered about Arizona’s sprawl, which is not fundamentally different form vast swathes of the American landscape. Arizona becomes a poster boy for a trend that is both problematic and national in scope. Et cetera, etc.

The larger point is this: The idea of Arizona is often met by some kind of incomprehension. This incomprehension sets the scene of Arizona as an only quasi-habitable place, full of people who more or less chose to live there for their own weird reasons and are slowly dying out as a result of their mirage and are taking the Mexicans and the gays down with them.

The concept of Arizona, its setting, its culture, and its lifestyle has not, in some important ways, been incorporated into a larger national consciousness yet, which has not had to reckon with the long-term existence of the unique qualities of this state of the union. There are some interesting questions here: Is alienating a place like Arizona a way to deal with the nation’s own discomfort about its resource consumption, social divisions, or other things? In any case, this does not mean that Arizona is, in any kind of objective sense, more deviant than anywhere else.

***

Before we get to the politics strictly, let’s do another bit of comparison. Is Arizona weirder, more repulsive, etc. than any other given state? I’m choosing Louisiana not to pick on it, but just because it serves as a good contrast.

Despite their hangups, people generally don't find these folks hard to understand.

Despite their hangups, people generally don’t find these folks hard to understand.

Notable-of-late Louisianan TV celebrity Phil Robertson recently said some really retrograde things about gay people, as you are probably aware. Those comments are not exceptional in the cultural circumstance of rural Louisiana. Politically, Louisiana has elected a governor who apparently believes in exorcism, and it has occasionally been demonstrated to be the most fertile political ground for unreformed white supremacists. For the latter reason, Louisiana has sometimes been identified as a political pariah in the same way Arizona has.

There is a crucial difference here, though. Returning to the question posed at the start of this post: When Phil Robertson calls gays morally retrograde, nobody fails to understand how this could be. We disagree, we shake our heads, but we don’t completely lack understanding of what’s going on with Phil Robertson. Why? Well, the rest of the country has two centuries of dealing with Louisiana and states like it — their social and political nature are basically understood to the extent they need to be in order to include them in our larger self-conception of our national political and cultural milieu. Nobody finds anything really exceptional or surprising about a guy like Phil Robertson being a homophobe, though we may be disappointed.

With Arizona, though? People are baffled. “What’s going on in Arizona?”

***

That’s not to say that Arizona is a completely normal place. (As if anywhere is.) A larger point here is that Arizona is ultimately not so difficult to understand — and that viewing Arizona as some kind of “deviant state” comes down to not really having a quick, already-digested sense of what the confluence of cultural happenings in Arizona amounts to. One way to look at it is that the heuristic for understanding “that’s Arizona” is still being built, while we have a heuristic for “that’s Louisiana,” etc. which we can employ to understand what’s happening there, and how that speaks to nationwide debates and sensibilities. What’s happening in Arizona does have some unusual or unique aspects — it’s a unique mix of factors that may be otherwise familiar, but they are not ones that make Arizona pathological or uniquely problematic among  states.

Getting into culture and politics, here are what I think are some of the most important factors:

Ideological contestation in action.

Contestation.

1. Unsettled identity. Daily life in Arizona is awfully similar to daily life in most other parts of America, but, as a place, it has much less of a sense of itself. Its stunning growth since World War II, only recently slowed, became a primary source of identity, at the cost of a more substantive self-conceptualization. To me, there is such thing as a unique, vibrant Arizona, but it is not a concept that is alive in the minds of all of the people who live there, many of whom are transplants and moved to Arizona mostly to go about their lives. (More on this later.)

Arizona has difficulty, therefore, representing itself to outsiders in the same way that other states, from Massachusetts to Virginia to Iowa to Hawaii, can. And, naturally, ideas of what Arizona “is all about” tend to be dominated by outside critiques when there is no culturally embedded sense of “Arizona” to resort to for a response. An unsettled identity becomes even more unsettled the huge demographic differences that are emerging between Arizona’s older population and its younger one. In Arizona, 83 percent of people over 65 are white, while 43 percent of people under 18 are. These kinds of tensions have often been cited as the basic reason for things like the Tea Party nationwide. And while the diversification of America is a nationwide phenomenon, Arizona has the largest such age-race gap in the country, which underlies quite intense contestation over what kind of society Arizona will have.

I think this thought — “what’s happening in Arizona is also happening in the whole country, but maybe more so in Arizona” — is a good starting point for understanding it and seeing Arizona as something other than alien.

2. The contestation of a “new place.” Building from the previous point, in terms of political culture, I think Arizona’s growth can explain a lot. In terms of its human landscape, the extent to which recent migration dwarfed any previous stable population has made Arizona a kind of blank slate. People have moved to Arizona largely under the impression that they can shape more of their destiny there, that it represents a better place than the one they left. When you have a lot of these people moving to a place out of a sense of dreaming and idealism, I think you can get really intense ideological contestation — from Bleeding Kansas to California in the 1970s — as people realize that not everyone’s visions are in line with each other’s. The upshot of this is that people are engaged in an idealized version of politics, while they are simultaneously socially distant from others in a place where they live their daily lives but possess few roots. This disrupts any notion of commonweal, and divisiveness in politics receives less opposition.

3. Populist politics. Some of the explanation for Arizona’s political outcomes is institutional, to be sure. Bills like SB1062 recently, and SB1070 a few years ago, can emerge because of a less-mature political culture (where many people’s attention does not fix on local politics, leaving the field more open to ideologues) and because there are a lot of institutional channels for perhaps ill-advised populist measures. Arizona, for instance, not only has initiative, referendum, and recall (institutions which have knock-on effects upon legislative behavior), but also public financing of elections. Public financing, as Gail Collins wrote about for a national audience this week, has had the effect of removing the brakes that business interests might otherwise place on the Republican Party, leading to its candidates espousing a more populist brand of conservatism. Such can occur without the dominance of correspondingly weird beliefs among the people themselves (though they may also be there).

Those are just three (interrelated) reasons, but they are enough for now.

***

Does this make Arizona strange? Somewhat, yes — but not that strange. I think that Arizona’s struggles have historical precedents and national echoes, but the way that people outside of (and sometimes inside of) the state think about it just hasn’t come around yet to thinking of this mix as factors as, basically, typical. Understanding Arizona’s politics is like understanding how people can live in Arizona’s climate. It means expanding your imagination and recognizing the extent to which the general issues presented by the situation are actually familiar.

Arizona is profoundly suburban; so is most of America, nowadays. Its politics are, mostly, conservative; so are many other places’. Its political institutions are populist; it’s not alone in that, either. As far as public opinion goes — if you’ll believe me (and click on the links to see polls that prove it) — Arizona’s people are not especially anti-gay or antiimmigrant. The fact that, in such a state, you do get legislation like what you’ve seen needs some kind of intellectual explanation, but it doesn’t mean Arizona is some kind of deviant outlier.

So, there are two parts of this argument.

1. People don’t have shortcuts to understand Arizona, because what people see in Arizona still seems somehow alien to them, unmeshed with what is occurring nationally. This is a problem of a lack of imagination.

2. Arizona does actually have a unique confluence of things going on, which may produce anomalous social/political events — but these are only baffling if you don’t grasp how much of Arizona life also has echoes across the country.

To me, now that Arizona’s breakneck growth has slowed down, the main struggle ahead for our state will be to decide what kind of place, exactly, we have created. Arizona now has 6.5 million people, and settling on some kind of identity, some kind of social model, and some kind of sense of common purpose in the post-population explosion era, will be a long and difficult process. We have just started going through it, and we won’t be done for a while.

A relatively happy result is possible, though. I’ll cite another example: California.

Life there seems pretty good.

Life there seems pretty good.

It seems that a few years ago, California was a sort of wacky utopia-gone-wrong in a similar sense that Arizona is today. Southern California in particular was the subject of convincing criticism of its basic essence. It was a cauldron of race hatred and was the earth literally broke beneath it. Its populist politics quickly made misguided anti-immigrant sentiment into law. Of course, this head-scratching about California politics was accompanied by the apparent alienness of the California lifestyle. A difference with California is that it didn’t prompt the quite same level of bewilderment as Arizona: Its size and cultural importance demanded that it be understood, where to most Arizona can comfortably remain a puzzle.

Anyway, despite an impossibly long ballot and more recent echoes of circus-like politics, California seems to have settled. It has a political and social consensus where previously society had been deeply divided. Think about it: Does California seem like the kind of dystopia you might have thought in the days of low-speed Ford Bronco chases? That’s not to say everything in California is perfect, but it’s not a deviant place.

Neither is Arizona, especially. Looking at Arizona, you see issues that are present in America (either the whole or various parts) and have been for a long time. It’s not too hard to understand, if you think about it.

Apologies for straying from the normal topic of this blog.

The discharge petition won’t pass immigration reform. It may as well be put to use tactically.

There’s this ingenious thing called the discharge petition, which means that, in principle, if a majority in the House of Representatives wants to vote on a bill, they can make it happen without the leadership’s permission.

But the proposed discharge petition cannot be a viable way of achieving comprehensive reform, unless Republicans conclusively give up on their talk of an effort to address the issue. That seems unlikely to happen. So, instead, it is a potential way to get Republicans to pass whatever piecemeal provisions they may be bothered to pass. It’s not a particularly effective way to get that to happen, either, but it seems better than nothing.

The discharge petition won’t be a way to pass immigration reform. This is because possibly sympathetic Republicans aren’t willing to support it — and the root cause they aren’t willing to support it is because the Republican caucus won’t slam the door shut on doing something on their own about the issue.

A few months ago, the discharge petition seemed to me to be at least a decent last-ditch concept: Wouldn’t there at least be 20 House Republicans (about the number that would be needed for a petition to work) who think immigration reform is important enough to break with their hesitant party on it? And wouldn’t the House Republican leadership, which subtly does seem to want some kind of reform to pass but is afraid of their caucus, largely spare the rebels from retribution?

Maybe the politics of the discharge petition were always too complicated.

This story by Politico actually does a good job at highlighting the dilemma when it discusses the timing of a potential move.

Should Democrats push the discharge petition now because time is running out to pass immigration reform? Or should they wait until the Republicans have clearly given up on trying to do anything themselves (the embers of effort are still flickering)?

The Republican caucus, as reflected in its statement of principles, has made clear that if it’s going to pass something on immigration, it’ll be something the House Republicans came up with. (They may not actually agree with the rest of the sentiments in that statement of principles, but the idea that they won’t work from the Senate bill seems to be well supported.) As long as this process of coming up with their own way of addressing the issue is allegedly going on, a Republican supporting a discharge petition proposed by Democrats is a grievous offense. Ideally, it would seem straightforward that after Republicans close the door on immigration reform, the rebels (facing pressure in their districts, or acting out of a sense of the urgent need for reform) could side with the rest of the chamber’s Democrats to pass it. The rebels could no longer be accused of subverting their party’s efforts to address the issue and, as established, the Republican leadership would not be too interested in punishing them.

The problem right now is that Republicans are slow-pedaling immigration reform without actually killing it. Such a situation is probably the most comfortable short-term position possible for people like John Boehner, caught between a realization that Republicans should, for self-interested reasons, really do something about immigration, and a caucus whose ideological commitments prevent them from doing that, but don’t prevent them from talking about it vaguely. So, the opportunity to ease the partisan logics currently obstructing the success of a discharge petition never arises — as long as the Republican House leadership keeps up the pretense of doing something about immigration.

Necessarily, then, the support for a discharge petition will carry too much of a partisan taint for it to be viable. Hence:

The move of instigating a discharge petition cannot escape the partisan logics that have largely frozen our political system generally. So what the discharge petition becomes it not a procedural “Hail Mary” for comprehensive reform — Republicans will not close the door sufficiently on acting in time for that to happen — but rather a spur toward the Republicans to act in their way. They hold out some prospect of acting in some way toward the goals of immigration reform, so see if the discharge petition can light a fire under them (and especially under the members of their caucus who have pledged to support immigration reform).

I think that sometimes the only way to move an opponent is to make them feel political consequences for their current position — it’s a tried and true political concept that comes closer to causing change than anything else. The only reason we can talk at all about immigration reform during this Congress is because Democrats and their voters made sure the 2012 election communicated clearly to the GOP how big an electoral problem its intransigence on immigration was. If the discharge petition isn’t going to actually attract any Republican support — a scenario which appears increasingly likely, since Republicans won’t decisively slam the door on their own efforts — I’d say the Democrats press the issue sooner rather than later, make the issue hurt as much as possible, and see what happens.

The easier solution would be if houses of Congress could just vote on proposals that enjoyed majority support.

When mixed signals have no grander meaning

Who knows. (Creative Commons)

Who knows. (Creative Commons)

Right now the hopes of immigration reform activists hang on the every word of House Republican leadership. The problem is there is no Kremlinology for this group. There’s no way to decode their public utterances to discern some kind of significant, hidden mode of thinking or grand plan. The much more likely situation is that what they say from day to day is incoherent.

What we know about John Boehner’s way of operating is that John Boehner wants to continue to be speaker, and passing major legislation is all well and good as long as doing so doesn’t endanger that first goal. He is also probably part of the Republican Party elite that sees immigration reform as a long-run electoral necessity for them. But these views don’t fit together when his restive caucus hasn’t been brought around on the idea. So what he says from day to day will likely be inconsistent.

This leads to the recent instances where Republicans have started to claim “we can’t trust Obama to enforce immigration laws.” This is an absurd claim for a whole number of reasons, but most notably, I think, because it is an alleged complaint that has no way to be satisfied. Like the claim that the border ‘needs to be secure’ before reform efforts, in the absence of any criteria for establishing trust, it just turns into a vague, passive-aggressive, blame-deflecting way of blocking reform.

The existence of those kinds of blocks is not commensurate with actually passing reform. Some sharp observers don’t see those kinds of statements as very problematic:

True, but it’s also (more plausibly) what he’d say if he really doesn’t know what he’s going to do about the issue. The problem is that, in the meantime, it just sets up another unmeetable condition for moving forward on reform, where the Senate bill actually made political progress by determining how the previously unmeetable conditions would be met.

The good news, I guess, is that the House GOP leadership’s tack could just change again tomorrow. Somewhat promising standards for immigration reform one day, declarations incommensurable with passing them the next.