With the second session of the 113th Congress under way, there are encouraging signs that high-skilled immigration reform could find some traction in 2014. When the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June of last year, there were high hopes that this momentum would propel us toward enactment of the first major comprehensive immigration reform since 1986. However, the U.S. House of Representatives then refused to take up the Senate bill, and then consecutive crises from Syria, to the government shutdown and debt ceiling, to the health care rollout problems took turns crowding everything else out of the Congressional calendar. For the past several months, immigration reform has seemingly remained a shimmering mirage just out of reach beyond the next legislative dune. While this has certainly been a disheartening experience for advocates of reform, the fact that it even seems tantalizingly approachable should be considered an encouraging sign compared to recent years.
During the last major push for comprehensive immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, the Senate debated but failed to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, while the House would only focus on border security and enforcement. The emotionally charged nature of the debate within Congress, especially among Republicans ended up rendering the issue radioactive for years.
However, the situation is now different. Compared to the last time, there is much wider recognition among Republicans that the current immigration system is badly broken and that the status quo is untenable. While House Republicans have rejected the comprehensive bill approach of the Senate, individual bills on different aspects of immigration reform have moved through committee. The hiring by Speaker Boehner of long-time immigration policy expert Rebecca Tallent has been hailed as a tangible sign of the Speaker’s intent to move on the issue. House Majority Leader Cantor, in his House January Legislative Agenda Memo, mentioned immigration as one of “several outstanding issues” that “may be brought to the floor over the next few months.” Given these encouraging signs from the leadership, we are hopeful that whatever radioactivity remains on this issue can potentially be isolated within a Yucca Mountain of “hell no” opposition and shielded from the majority of the Republican caucus.
While much work remains to be done to counter voices unwilling to take the political risk to potential electoral gains and tackle the difficult task of immigration reform, this year should be viewed as an opportunity to finally free the issue (and the broken immigration system) from the stasis in which it has long been trapped.