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Immigration activists fear House GOP is backing off reform

Supporters of immigration reform are worried that Speaker John Boehner's latest attack on President Obama's trustworthiness is a bad omen for legislation.
A young man carries national flags of the U.S. and Mexico through the streets during a May Day march, May 1, 2013, in San Diego, Calif.
A young man carries national flags of the U.S. and Mexico through the streets during a May Day march, May 1, 2013, in San Diego, Calif.

Speaker John Boehner’s announcement on Thursday that President Obama may be too untrustworthy for Republicans to pass immigration legislation is worrying supporters of reform, some of whom fear it’s a prelude to abandoning the issue altogether.

“Let’s be honest, it’s not about the president’s trustworthiness,” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, told reporters in a press call on Friday. “It’s about how right now there seems to be insufficient support in the Republican caucus for immigration reform as outlined in the principles.”

Boehner's comments that immigration bills would "difficult to move" until Obama can improve his standing with Republicans came just days after House GOP leaders released a rough framework for immigration reform that included a legalization program for undocumented immigrants. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill last June addressing the same broad issues raised in the House principles.

Boehner and others in the GOP have often cited Obama’s use of waivers to tweak the implementation of the Affordable Care Act as evidence the administration would refuse to enforce an immigration deal as written. Pro-immigration activists call that a weak excuse, given that their groups have spent years protesting the Obama administration’s record high deportation levels. Many groups have called on the president to take executive action to block removal proceedings for migrants who would gain legal status under reform, but Obama has rebuffed their arguments after granting limited protection to some young undocumented immigrants in 2012.

“This president has been more aggressive at deporting people than any in American history,” Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network, said on the call. “If Republicans can’t accept that then they need to put on the table now what they’re going to do to make this better.”

Henrik Rehbinder, opinion editor for the Spanish-language La Opinión, told reporters he was “not optimistic” about legislation passing this year.

"If they say the fault is Obama’s because they don’t trust Obama, I don’t think they’re going to trust Obama in the next few months,” Rehbinder said. “This is just a game saying that they’re not going to approve anything."

Rehbinder was more down on immigration reform’s chances than other prominent leaders on the issue, however. Sharry said he remained hopeful that Republicans would come around before the end of the year, despite their “bullsh-- excuses.”

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told msnbc in a separate interview on Friday that it was likely Boehner was buying time while leaders worked on a fuller policy proposal to address GOP concerns and dealt with more immediate issues, like the debt ceiling.

“What I heard [Boehner] saying is ‘Let’s keep working immigration through the legislative process, we'll get to it later in the Spring, but between now and then let's talk about this nebulous issue of trust,’” he said.

Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer made a similar argument on Thursday, telling reporters that Boehner’s remarks may have been part of a kabuki dance to quiet Republican critics.

Nonetheless, Noorani said there is a growing fear that many House Republicans have come to believe immigration reform isn’t worth a divisive debate in 2014 given that Hispanic and Asian voters tend to play a bigger role in presidential elections. In 2012, Obama carried 71 percent of the Hispanic vote over Republican Mitt Romney and 73 percent of the Asian vote, prompting a number of Republican leaders to reconsider the party's immigration stance.

“I think the opponents are getting traction with the argument of ‘Why now?’” Noorani said. “I can’t see a scenario in 2016 where Republicans have a better chance for claiming the mantle of victory on immigration reform. They’re going to be in the midst of a presidential primary where the field will be dragged to the right. Does anyone really think Ted Cruz is all of a sudden going to be calling for immigration reform in 2016?”

Tamar Jacoby, president of the business-focused ImmigrationWorks USA, suggested there might be something to Boehner’s claim that Obama could boost reform’s chances by acquiescing to Republican demands on unrelated legislation related to trade or medical research.

“[It’s] too soon to tell what it means,” Jacoby told msnbc in an e-mail, adding that the “question is how will Obama respond.” 

The general reaction from the reform side, however, was that Boehner’s arguments had little to do with any specific policy demands and instead reflected a backlash within his caucus. United We Dream, a group that advocates for young undocumented immigrants, minced no words on Thursday in accusing Boehner of bowing to political pressure.  

“It took Republican leadership all of one week after releasing their immigration ‘principles’ to dredge up their tired excuse for blocking immigration reform,” Cristina Jimenez, managing director at United We Dream, said in a statement. “The immigrant community can see right through their political games and we won’t stand for them.”