Comprehensive immigration reform, as we know it, is dead. There are no congressional meetings taking place behind closed doors. No bipartisan bills up for a vote.
Instead the entire progressive agenda on immigration is riding on a single case about to be argued next week before an ideologically split Supreme Court.
Administration allies are fairly optimistic that President Obama’s executive actions on immigration will win the legal battle, allowing his signature programs to move forward. For the sake of the nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants who have been waiting for more than a year to obtain work authorization and a shield from deportation, the legal strategy better work. Because if not, there is no immediate plan B.
Both Democratic candidates have operated on the assumption that Obama’s immigration actions would survive the Supreme Court test unscathed. They have used those programs, known as DACA and DAPA, as a foundation for their own immigration proposals. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton want to go even further, vowing to nearly double the number of undocumented immigrants allowed to remain in the U.S.
But what if the Supreme Court’s decision in the case is a 4-4 split? The lower court’s ruling on the actions would remain on hold, leaving the programs on ice. Or what if the justices side with the 26 states that are suing the federal government? The result would nearly diminish all chances of those programs ever seeing the light of day.
Advocates and allies in the immigrant rights movement are counting on Obama’s executive actions to serve as a crucial stop-gap until a more long-term solution on immigration is reached in Congress. After all, DACA and DAPA are just temporary programs. Each would prevent deportations from tearing families apart, but the programs still create a second class of immigrants who don’t have nearly the rights of American citizens or legal permanent residents.
The only alternative is passing comprehensive immigration reform. But the key underlying problem is that Congress has been working for more than a decade to pass such legislation, yet it has eluded lawmakers time and time again.
The stalemate has left policy stakeholders from both sides of the aisle so pessimistic about the prospects of reform that even true-believers know the solution is years off in the distance — at best.
The partisan divide grows wider by the day with complete polarization between the parties: Democratic leaders call for a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants while Republican leaders call for tighter borders and mass deportations.
The realities of the existing power structures in Washington just point to more gridlock. Even if a Democrat wins the White House, Republicans are likely to hold onto control of Congress. The days of both parties coming together on immigration are long gone, buried with a bipartisan deal that failed to ever make it to a vote on the House floor.
Immigrant allies have since resorted to waiting for voters at the ballot box to make clear that immigration reform is a priority. Groups have all but frozen efforts to lobby for reform, waiting instead to hear the Supreme Court’s decision on Obama’s executive actions.
“There are two ways to pass comprehensive immigration reform: One is Republicans coming around on the issue and the other is that Republicans don’t have a place in Congress,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director at America’s Voice, a pro-immigrant group pressing for reform.
Republicans have outright rejected taking a comprehensive approach toward reform. Instead, they have rallied behind piecemeal bills that heighten enforcement and boost resources for defending the border. The reigning mantra from Republican presidential candidates has been to “secure the border” first, then deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
“All of the Republican candidates agree that there should not be some giant comprehensive bill,” said Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, a group that has taken an aggressive hard-line against undocumented immigrants. “I don’t see Republicans being willing to have a bill that has amnesty in it.”
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has promised that if elected, she would have a comprehensive immigration reform bill ready for Congress within her first 100 days in office. In the face of fierce opposition from Republicans, she has promised to expend her political capital and twist as many arms of lawmakers as she can to get the legislation through.
But there is currently no plan in action that would please both sides on the immigration debate. For now, there just one primary tactic: Wait for a decision from the Supreme Court on whether millions of undocumented immigrants would be allowed to continue living in the U.S. without fear. Then, no matter what, back to the drawing board.