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.

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