What Do Midterms Mean for Immigration Reform?

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Republicans already failed to achieve reform on President Donald Trump’s central issue — immigration — despite maintaining Congressional majorities, and last week’s election results didn’t help those prospects.

With Democrats leading the House of Representatives, voters can expect to see more gridlock as Democrats have more leverage in pushing reform packages that Republicans likely won’t support.

Before the election, Congress and the White House failed to compromise on at least three key policy areas: border wall funding, authorization for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and standards surrounding chain migration.

Without Republicans leading the House, it appeared that the border wall funding proposal was all but lost as Democrats already opposed an offer Trump made to trade border wall funding for legalization earlier this year.

Possible Shutdown

The president has the power to veto any budget that doesn’t include funding for a border wall, although doing so would create a potentially nasty political battle of the sort that both Republicans and Democrats have already lost.

Earlier this year, for example, the White House eventually approved a short-term spending measure which included neither Republicans’ coveted border wall funding nor Democrats’ wish for a DACA fix.

As IJR previously noted, the controversial migrant caravan appeared to heighten the urgency for greater security along the southern border. But while Republicans ranked immigration as their top issue before the midterms, it’s unclear if public opinion will support Trump in the event that he vetoes an objectionable spending package.

REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera/File Photo

Nevertheless, Trump himself indicated that he might force a shutdown over border wall funding. While he hasn’t committed to funding the government without a border wall, his staff reportedly warned him not to expect the full $5 billion he requested for the wall.

“I’ll have to see how it plays out. But I may very well be willing to shut down the government,” Trump said.

Senate Republicans have already indicated that shutting down the government might hurt the party politically. They specifically urged Trump not to shut down the government in October, fearing that doing so would hurt the party’s prospects in November’s elections.

But given that Democrats will take control of the House in just a few months, Trump might see this budget battle as his best shot at obtaining funding for a while.

Posturing Over Policymaking

Because neither side will have adequate majorities for furthering their immigration agenda, they’ll likely spend their time messaging and posturing before the 2020 elections when both Congress and the president will face voters’ scrutiny.

Democrats will likely use their majority as an opportunity to push legislation as a form of political messaging rather than attempt an actual compromise.

“I expect [Democrats] to kind of move legislation on their own that symbolizes their values on the issue but it won’t be a real exercise in legislating,” Tim Chapman, who worked in Congress and now serves as the Executive Director of Heritage Action, told IJR.

“It will be a messaging exercise for their base,” he added. Democrats’ majority also comes with committee leadership positions which the party could leverage to further pressure the administration over its more controversial decisions on immigration.

Republicans Go on Offense

Republicans could go on the offensive, however, by targeting more moderate members of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) caucus — leading to some kind of insurrection that would upend leadership’s messaging on immigration.

Led by immigration hawk Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Republicans’ more aggressive messaging could prompt a compromise with Democrats.

Art Arthur, Resident Fellow in Law and Policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, predicted that Trump and Republicans could have stronger messaging on the border, and another mass migration event, like the caravan, could pressure Democrats to cave in the face of suburban concerns about security.

“If you see a mass immigration event, then there will be more support for a wall,” he told IJR.

The more moderate Democratic members could join Jordan and others in challenging Democrats’ stranglehold on the reform process.

“You could see some interesting things with Republicans in the minority using some parliamentary tactics to push for border security and to try to put some of the new Democrats in the conference — particularly the ones who ran as more moderates — to put them in a tough place especially on the border security issue,” Chapman said.

“But what that all amounts to is a lot of political jockeying for position and unfortunately, putting this issue off until 2020,” he added.

As Chapman noted, a bipartisan coalition could work to sidestep committee leadership by filing a discharge petition that would bring legislation out of the committee’s consideration.

Senate Republicans, wary of another budget showdown, could independently push an immigration compromise that might upset Trump but put pressure on him to make a decision in the face of something like a potential shutdown next year.

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