GOP Insiders Skipped Real Immigration Reform Last Week

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There was some joy in Mudville on May 24 when the Davis-Oliver comprehensive interior enforcement proposal was passed out of the House Judiciary Committee with all 19 Republicans supporting it and all 13 Democrats opposed.

Yet, when push came to shove last week, Casey struck out as the bill was put on hold by the House Republican leadership and two less powerful immigration bills were pushed forward instead.

The fateful “Million Dollar Question” is — what role did the lack of White House engagement in support of Davis-Oliver play in that decision by House Republican leaders to push two less comprehensive measures forward? We can’t be certain of the answer. But whatever the relative blame to be allocated to White House timidity versus House Republican leaders’ perfidy, the result was a fateful “preemptive compromise.”

When the dust settled, Davis-Oliver was abandoned and two less comprehensive immigration bills made it to the floor and were passed.

The two bills are “Kate’s Law” (H.R.3004) and the “No Sanctuary for Criminals Act” (H.R. 1303). The two bills aim at far less than what Davis- Oliver promised, so Republicans should not be popping Champaign corks just yet.

So, what really happened to the Davis-Oliver bill passed by the House Judiciary Committee on May 24? One version says that White House staff preferred going for a quick win for the two simpler bills while holding out the prospect of support for more ambitious bills down the road. According to Iowa Rep. Steve King, “The White House still wants” the Davis-Oliver bill as well.

The problem with this “baby steps first” strategy is that no matter how well motivated, it is politically unworkable. It is unlikely we will ever see the day when we see the Davis Oliver bill on the House calendar for a floor vote.

If the two very modest bills passed by the House this week can get over the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate, there will be lots of hoopla by our side and lots of Chicken Little protests by the open-borders folks.

But in the long run, not passing the “whole enchilada” now is a losing strategy based on naive assumptions. How can anyone seriously believe that passing a more ambitious immigration bill in 2018 will be easier than in 2017? It will be harder, not easier. When your car is up on blocks and needs a new engine, do you celebrate the mechanic installing four new tires? Maybe it looks better, but it’s still not going anywhere. Neither is the White House promise of a real immigration enforcement overhaul “down the road.”

What is not widely understood or openly acknowledged is that the successful passage of Kate’s Law and the anti-sanctuary bill will give political cover to Republicans who oppose any action on other, even more controversial priorities — like real border security, mandatory E-Verify for employers, ending birthright citizenship, defusing the ticking time-bomb called “visa overstays,” and other basic reforms that can only be done with active presidential leadership.

As an immigration reformer and a representative from 1999 to 2009, I have seen this happen time and time again. The Congress will respond to pressure by doing a Kabuki dance. They pass something without great substance but do so with great noise and fanfare. Then they leave the stage, never to return — until the next Kabuki dance is scheduled.

The two new bills aren’t much to cheer about.

The “No Sanctuary for Criminals Act” simply reinforces a long-established federal law (8 U.S.C.1373) by explicitly authorizing the Department of Justice to withhold DOJ grant funds. It does NOT affect the billions of dollars of federal funds flowing from numerous other federal agencies. However, It does accomplish a few needed reforms:

It targets local government entities that explicitly and formally prohibit law enforcement agencies from cooperating with federal law enforcement actions aimed at criminal aliens.

It relieves local government and law enforcement of financial liability in honoring ICE detainers aimed at criminal aliens already in custody: the federal government becomes the defendant in any lawsuit, not the local sheriff.

Because the bill actually has very limited reach financially — and despite the intense controversy and the sky-is-falling rhetoric from the left — it will have limited impact on sanctuary cities.

Certainly, the anti-sanctuary bill is a good idea. It clarifies and reinforces the federal government’s ability to withhold federal grant funds to local law enforcement agencies will help federal enforcement efforts. But it serves no good purpose to exaggerate its likely accomplishment – enactment will not end all sanctuary city policies, will not starve sanctuary cities into submission, and will not lead to the deportation of all criminal aliens. It is a modest first step in cracking down on sanctuary policies, but it is not really a “game changer.”

To see a really root-and-branch attack on sanctuary city policies, look at the new Texas law already signed into law by Texas’s Governor. It allows the prosecution and jailing of any local sheriff (like in the city of Austin) who refuses to honor federal detainers issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. Now, there’s a state-federal partnership a citizen can be proud of!

By comparison, H.R. 3003 is s slap on the wrist, not a kick in the butt.

The hype on “Kate’s Law” is also overdone and often misleading.

The bill should be enacted and signed by the President, but by itself, it will not close the revolving door for deported criminal aliens. Only true border security can do that, and the Republican leadership in Congress remains evasive on the funding for Trump’s border wall.

“Kate’s Law” will set new, more severe penalties in fines and the length of jail terms for criminal aliens who return to the U. S. after being deported, which is obviously a step in the right direction. But the language of the bill does not live up to the hype: It does not establish new minimum mandatory prison sentences as many believe. And why limit the fines and jail terms to only criminal aliens? Why not establish a minimum two-year prison term for any deported illegal alien who returns unlawfully? The bill does not do any of that. Again, you can read the bill for yourself here.

The looming tragedy is this: Without vigorous White House leadership, the Republican immigration enforcement agenda is doomed. Everyone in Washington understands that without Trump’s personal leadership and his staff making it a high priority, not many congressional Republicans are going to break their swords on the issue.

The immigration agenda needs to move forward in the first year of Trump’s presidency, not year two or three. Ask Reagan-era conservatives how many Reagan campaign proposals found the policy spotlight after 1981. It’s hard to name even one.

When you stop to think about it, isn’t the lack of priority attached to immigration legislation by the Trump White House quite astounding given the prominence of those campaign promises throughout 2016? While Trump deserves praise for doing those early executive orders, by definition those executive orders — when they are legal and not usurpations of the legislative powers of Congress, as in Obama’s case — are purely administrative and can be revoked or amended by the next president. There are important reforms that require new legislation, and that legislation cannot succeed without presidential leadership.

There is a cruel irony at play here: Unless that White House leadership arrives on the battlefield soon, the immigration reform agenda will die with the passage of Kate’s Law. Legislation that is sidetracked today will arrive at a dead end tomorrow.

By all means, let’s pass these two good bills. But please, can we tone down the celebration until we see some presidential leadership on the immigration reform legislation that really counts over the long term? I think Kate Steinle would appreciate that.

 

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