When Republican lawmakers take over the House and gain strength in the Senate after the new year, a decadelong drive to overhaul the immigration system and legalize some of the estimated 11 million undocumented migrants seems all but certain to come to a halt.
When New York Republican Peter T. King takes over the House Homeland Security Committee in January, he plans to propose legislation to reverse what he calls an “obvious lack of urgency” by the Obama administration to secure the border.
Among other initiatives, King wants to see the Homeland Security Department expand a program that enlists the help of local police departments in arresting suspected illegal immigrants.
Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who will have oversight over deportations and arrests when he takes the gavel as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was an author of 1996 legislation increasing penalties against illegal immigrants.
Called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and signed into law by President Clinton, the bill limited the discretion of U.S. immigration judges and increased the time that immigrants could be detained while awaiting a hearing.
As his first order of business, Smith plans to hold hearings about workplace enforcement and expanding the employee identification program, E-Verify, which is set to expire in 2012.
Since President Obama took office in January 2009, the Homeland Security Department has focused on arresting and deporting illegal immigrants with criminal records. Under Obama, the total number of deportations is up, and the percentage of those deported who are considered a threat to public safety is at a record high.
Arrests of illegal workers at job sites are down, however, as the Obama administration focuses resources on fining and prosecuting employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. The goal is to reduce the demand for illegal labor.
Smith plans to attack Obama’s enforcement strategy. His staff is preparing to hold hearings to encourage more workplace raids and to investigate allegations that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials manipulated numbers to inflate the department’s criminal deportation statistics.
“We could free up millions of jobs for Americans and legal immigrants if we enforced our immigration laws against illegal workers,” Smith said.
King, whose committee will share jurisdiction on immigration issues, wants the Homeland Security Department to “aggressively go after private companies which hire illegal immigrants.”
Any proposals that involve giving status to those already in the country are “pointless” until the border is better secured, Smith said.
The Obama administration hired more Border Patrol agents and, over the summer, deployed 1,200 National Guard troops along the border.
The number of illegal immigrants crossing into the U.S. is down by more than 50% from five years ago, to about 300,000 a year, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report released in September. That is less than the 400,000 people deported each year.
The most recent immigration bill, the DREAM Act, passed the House but did not have enough support in the Senate to get to a floor vote. It would have created a path to citizenship for potentially hundreds of thousands of immigrants under age 30 who were brought to this country before age 16 and who had attended college or served in the military.
Obama said before leaving for his Christmas holiday in Hawaii that he would not give up on immigration reform. But facing a Republican-controlled House and a narrower Democratic majority in the Senate, the avenues to pass new legislation on the issue appear closed.
Still, Obama said he would use his bully pulpit next year to persuade voters that there were hard-working young people without immigration status who should remain in the country.
The defeat of the DREAM Act was “maybe my biggest disappointment,” Obama told reporters Wednesday.
“I’m going to engage Republicans who, I think, some of them, in their heart of hearts, know it’s the right thing to do, but they think the politics is tough for them,” Obama said. “We’ve got to change the politics.”
Increasing enforcement without creating a path to citizenship is the approach “enshrined in the immigration law written by Lamar Smith,” said a senior administration official. That approach “doesn’t fix the problem,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the debate.
As the new Congress comes into session, both parties have retreated to their corners to regroup on immigration strategy. Republican strategists are advising GOP lawmakers that the November results showed that the party doesn’t need immigration reform to attract Latino votes, and that Republicans should stick to a script of talking points on tax cuts and job creation.
“It is a huge mistake to believe that immigration reform is the single driving force for Hispanic voters,” said longtime Republican strategist Javier Ortiz.
Democrats see Republican votes against the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act as potentially making the difference in districts with emerging Latino voter populations.
Democratic strategists say that every time Republican lawmakers push hard on immigration enforcement, they drive Latino voters away.
In the midterm election, exit polls showed that Latino voters turned out in increased numbers for Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada after Republican opponent Sharron Angle riled the community with political ads that showed images of menacing, tattooed Latinos.
And in California, Republican Meg Whitman set a spending record but still lost the governor’s race to Democrat Jerry Brown by nearly 13 percentage points. Although she tried to woo Latinos, she couldn’t overcome damages inflicted during the GOP primary, when she vowed to be as “tough as nails” on illegal immigration. One in five voters was Latino, and 80% of them voted for Brown. Just 15% chose Whitman.