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This is what it looks like when immigration reform dies

With hopes for an immigration bill fading, activists, lawmakers, and the President Obama are already planning their next move. Welcome to the post-reform world.
A protester takes part in a demonstration calling for immigration reform at a rally in Chicago, Ill. on March 27, 2014.
A protester takes part in a demonstration calling for immigration reform at a rally in Chicago, Ill. on March 27, 2014.

You can’t say they didn’t try.

Supporters of immigration reform did everything they could to pass a law. They threw their support behind bipartisan negotiations in the Senate that led to the passage of a promising bill. They organized religious leaders, CEOs, and law enforcement to lobby Republicans in their districts. They even managed to broker a peace deal between unions and corporations.

None of it worked. Amid a growing consensus House Republicans are unlikely to pass a bill anytime soon, lawmakers, activists, and the White House are moving on to a post-reform phase focused on immediate relief for undocumented immigrants and wreaking electoral vengeance on the GOP.

“I think we're entering the last chapter of the push for legislation,” Frank Sharry, executive director of pro-reform advocacy group America’s Voice, told msnbc.

In Congress, Democrats filed a discharge petition on Wednesday to force a vote on HR 15, a comprehensive immigration reform bill largely adapted from the Senate’s bipartisan bill. As Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi herself admitted going in, the petition had almost no chance of success since it would require substantial Republican help to succeed. The move's real value is political: by providing a clear route to passing reform, Democrats hope to force Republicans – especially a handful of members in immigrant-heavy swing districts – to clarify their position in starker terms.

"It says between now and November to the Republicans, 'You don't like the discharge petition, so what do you propose?'" Eliseo Medina, the SEIU's point man on immigration, told msnbc. "They're going to have to answer the question."

The bigger action is on the executive side. Immigration leaders have long criticized President Obama for his record pace of deportations and called on him to issue an order broadly halting removals, especially in cases where families would be divided.

Obama and Democratic lawmakers working on reform were wary of such proposals last year, which Republicans warned would scuttle negotiations. As long as good faith talks continued the White House was able buy some breathing room on the issue. Now that hopes for a legitimate House GOP bill are fading, there’s little reason for pro-reform voices to temper their calls for immediate action. Even dealmakers like Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who once downplayed talk of unilateral action, are calling on the president to bypass Congress if nothing happens soon.

“The clear reality is comprehensive immigration is dead this year,” Arturo Carmona, executive director of, told msnbc. “We can't continue to have this contradictory policy where President Obama on the one side is saying fix the broken immigration system while he continues to deport our families at unprecedented rates.”

Until recently, Obama said he lacked legal authority to make significant changes, but he opened the door to executive action just a crack in January – then swung it wide open in March. After meeting with Hispanic lawmakers, Obama directed his new Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to review deportation policies in pursuit of a more humane approach.   

Sharry and Medina told msnbc they came away from their own meeting with Obama encouraged that he would take steps to halt deportations for at least some groups. Both named June as their tentative deadline for GOP action, after which they assumed immigration reform was done for the year and activists would move on to their next steps. According to The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, activists who spoke to the president believe the White House is on a similar timetable in determining new executive actions.

“My sense is that the president wants to give them every chance to do something, but if they wont do it I take him at his word during his State of the Union speech when he said ‘If Congress won’t act, I will,’” Medina said. 

Sharry, usually known for his optimism, put the odds of Republicans abandoning immigration reform this year only to return to it in the middle a Republican presidential primary at “somewhere between zilch and nada.” That gives activists even less incentive to hold back in the hopes of encouraging a future deal.

“Quite frankly, we expect Obama to act boldly to protect most of the undocumented through executive action,” Sharry said. “Then we'll go abut the business of electing a Congress that will pass reform without all these concessions to Republicans.”

This wouldn’t be the first time Republicans’ failure to pass immigration legislation spurred executive action. After GOP senators filibustered the DREAM Act, which would have granted a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants, Obama issued an order in June 2012 halting deportations for DREAMers. The move rallied Latino voters who had been growing frustrated by the administration’s lack of action on the issue, and Obama's decisive re-election scared Republicans enough to put comprehensive immigration reform back on the table. 

As the saying goes, time is a flat circle. Immigration advocates hope to repeat the cycle by forcing the White House to take unilateral action, which would set the stage for Latino voters to punish the GOP in 2016, which in turn would pressure Republican leaders to finally cave on reform.

Republicans candidates are unlikely to pay much of a price in the midterms for blocking immigration reform, but as GOP leaders and pollsters have repeatedly warned, presidential elections are another story. Latino and Asian voters are a rapidly growing share of the electorate in key swing states, making it more difficult each election for a Republican candidate to win without improving on the party's current standing. Some Republicans argue they can succeed by boosting the white vote instead, but given that the youngest generation of voters is both less white and more liberal, it's a dangerous bet. 

Before it comes to that, activists are asking Republicans to take one last look at the demographic data and ask whether immigration reform’s death is their GOP’s own as well.

“If they don’t pass legislation by June of this year, then they’ll have squandered their opportunity to share credit,” Sharry said. “They wont have another chance.”