The ‘Gang’ is gone, but immigration reform is alive–for now

Updated
People participate in a protest march that organizers said was an attempt to get the U.S. Congress to say yes to immigration reform on April 6, 2013 in Miami...
People participate in a protest march that organizers said was an attempt to get the U.S. Congress to say yes to immigration reform on April 6, 2013 in Miami...
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

First they were eight. Then seven. Now five, en route to zero.

A year-long negotiation among a bipartisan group of seven House members on a comprehensive immigration bill broke down on Friday as two Republican members announced they would no longer participate in talks. Congressman Sam Johnson and John Carter, both of Texas, said they  were dropping out because they feared President Obama wouldn’t properly implement their plans for new border security measures.

“The bottom line is–the American people do not trust the President to enforce laws, and we don’t either,” the two said in a joint statement.

Members of the group had said for months they were close to releasing a legislative package that reportedly included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants–although one lengthier than the Senate’s bipartisan bill. But talks stalled in June over how to handle health benefits for immigrants, prompting Republican Congressman Raul Labrador of Idaho to abandon the group, which began with eight members. Johnson and Carter’s departure puts it to five, but effectively means talks are dead.

Some commentators are interpreting their demise as the end of immigration reform. That’s a premature assessment: immigration reform can still pass, just not through them. And the development was hardly a surprise.

The bipartisan gang’s relevance withered months ago when Speaker John Boehner and House leaders decided to move forward with a plan to advance immigration reform that did not include them. Boehner initially encouraged talks but eventually settled on a plan to pass a series of small individual bills instead of one comprehensive bill of the type the Senate passed in June.

Democrats in the group say the collapse of talks has little to do with quibbling over border security and a lot more to do with Boehner’s decision to bypass them. 

“It is clear the bipartisan group’s work was not being embraced by Republican leaders, so this allows us to put the focus squarely on Speaker Boehner and his lieutenants to decide if they are serious about reform and if so, to do something more than talk,” Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, one of the gang’s Democrats, said in a statement.

In other words, conservative Republicans in the group–and Carter and Johnson’s credentials are impeccable–were willing to reach a deal if they could expect GOP leaders to quickly endorse it. But if they were the only House Republicans backing a proposal, all the outrage from the right over immigration reform would converge on them.

So now immigration reform is in Boehner’s hands. He and his fellow GOP leaders are still working out their position, but there are some faint signs of life for an eventual deal. Congressman Bob Goodlatte, the chair of the Judiciary Committee examining the issue, recently signaled an openness to legalization and even the possibility of citizenship for a limited group of undocumented immigrants. That would fall short of the White House’s demand for a clear and achievable path to citizenship, but it would be a serious concession by a House GOP that’s still working out whether Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” plan was the right idea. Reformers are holding out hope that if the House passes even a modest reform bill, they might reach more expansive deal in conference with the Senate.

“In the end, it’s the Republican leadership that must make a decision on whether they intend to allow the current broken immigration system to continue as it is, or whether they will allow the House to vote on reform,” Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, another Democratic member of the group, said in a statement. “I continue to be hopeful that Republican leaders will schedule votes on serious reform measures that aren’t host to known poison pills. It can be done.”

The 'Gang' is gone, but immigration reform is alive--for now

Updated