Immigration Smash-up On Capitol Hill

by Michael Sean Winters

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It is hard to know what to make of yesterday’s bizarre inability by GOP House leaders to pass a bill aimed at dealing with the crisis at the border. For weeks on end, they have been talking about the increase in the number of unaccompanied children fleeing to this country as if it were an existential threat to the nation. They urged action. But, then, when the moment to act came, Speaker John Boehner could not corral enough votes to pass a bill.

Keep in mind that the bill the House was supposed to vote on yesterday was already a deeply slimmed-down version of President Obama’s request for $3.7 billion to supply more border officials to deal with the influx, and facilities for the children, and, most especially, more judges to hear the children’s claims for asylum as refugees. The House bill offered only $659 million, which is no small change, but in DC it is a rounding error. And, to appease his conservative, Tea Party base, Speaker John Boehner also offered a vote on a measure to rein in President Obama’s Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) policy, which has granted certain legal protections from deportation to half a million Americans who were brought across the border as children. That measure was not destined to go anywhere, but at least the Tea Partyers could tell the folks back home that they tried and blame it on the Senate or the President that DACA was not ended.  

But, the Tea Partyers were having none of it. After a night of pizza and Dr. Pepper in the office of Sen. Ted Cruz, the hard core caucus refused to back Boehner’s bill. Democrats were not going to support it either because it had cut back on providing the funds needed, and would have fast-tracked the deportation of these children. So, Boehner pulled the bill before letting it go to a vote that would have failed.

The ultimate irony, which would be funny if it were not so tragic, is that there are more than the 218 votes needed in the House to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Boehner could have brought that bill to the floor yesterday and it would have sailed through. But, so disinclined to alienate the Tea Partyers, and unwilling to give the President a “win” on any issue, Boehner won’t bring the immigration overhaul bill that already passed the Senate to the floor.

In case you think the U.S. Senate is a paragon of reasonableness, they failed also yesterday in their efforts to pass a $2.7 billion appropriation to deal with the border issue. The bill failed to garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome a threatened filibuster.

In the wake of the 2012 election, when Republicans were stunned to learn that an electorate that was increasingly diverse was unlikely to support them when they spoke about immigrants like they were dogs, everyone thought the GOP would jump on board the comprehensive immigration reform bandwagon. Some did, and a compromise measure sailed through the Senate by an overwhelming margin. But, then, the combination of talk radio/Fox News extremists warned that they would mount a challenge to any Republican who supported “amnesty.” Of course, no one supports amnesty. Amnesty is when the penalty for a crime is lifted entirely. Congress and state legislatures routinely change the penalties for certain crimes, and the comprehensive immigration reform measure would apply stiff fines for crossing the border without documentation. It would not deport the undocumented person unless they committed a crime unrelated to their immigration status. That is not amnesty. That is no different from ending the death penalty in favor of life in prison for the most dangerous criminals. But, to the right-wing talking heads, if you smile at an undocumented immigrant, you are betraying everything that is good and noble about America, or at least everything that is white about America.

Let’s not pull our punches. Ann Coulter and her ilk are racists, pure and simple. She told Fox News’ Sean Hannity last night that “We are being invaded.” I thought that armies invaded, not five year olds. She continued: “I’ll tell you how America would react to what’s happening in Israel right now. More than 100 tunnels have been found on our border to smuggle in weapons, guns, they’re invading, they’re murdering, they’re raping.” She added, “We are a country, we have borders, and Netanyahu enforces them. Why can’t we do that in America?” Huh? Hamas is a terrorist organization, digging tunnels to bring death and destruction to Israelis. The tunnels under the U.S. border bring guns from us to them (there are no gun manufacturers in Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala, from which most of the children are coming), or drugs from them to us (we Americans like our drugs). And, at issue yesterday was a bill to deal with the influx of children, children who are not “invading” or “murdering” or “raping” anyone.

Sometimes, you just feel like you are in a parallel universe, yes? In the past few weeks, we have seen heart warming stories of communities stepping up to assist these children in their extreme peril. We Catholics have been especially proud of our Catholic Charities nationwide and of our bishops who have not been quiet about the need for comprehensive immigration reform. And then you listen to Coulter and Hannity get each other all worked up and you have to wonder just how much vile, hateful stupidity passes for commentary these days.

And, then you look at Capitol Hill and wonder: Is it all for show? Does anyone care about the issues themselves, about finding solutions instead of posturing.

And, then, you look ahead. I will venture a prediction: Sen. Ted Cruz will be a very, very serious contender for the GOP nomination in 2016 if he seeks it. This man is smart, he is making allies, he is becoming the face of the most extreme, most devoted conservatives in his party. And, regrettably, it looks like in 2016 we will still be debating the need for comprehensive immigration reform. It makes one want to go back to bed, pull up the covers and forget about the world.


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