Obama demands House GOP vote on immigration reform

A coalition of New York area groups rally to call on Congress to move on immigration reform in New York, April 10, 2014.
A coalition of New York area groups rally to call on Congress to move on immigration reform in New York, April 10, 2014.

One year after a bipartisan group of senators introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill, President Obama asked House Republicans: Where’s yours?

“The Senate's commonsense agreement would grow the economy by $1.4 trillion and shrink the deficit by nearly $850 billion over the next two decades, while providing a tough but fair pathway to earned citizenship to bring 11 million undocumented individuals out of the shadows, modernizing our legal immigration system, continuing to strengthen border security, and holding employers accountable,” Obama said in a statement. “Simply put, it would boost our economy, strengthen our security, and live up to our most closely-held values as a society.”

Obama's message prompted an angry response from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who talked to the president by phone on Wednesday. 

"The President called me hours after he issued a partisan statement which attacked me and my fellow House Republicans and which indicated no sincere desire to work together," Cantor said in a statement. "After five years, President Obama still has not learned how to effectively work with Congress to get things done. You do not attack the very people you hope to engage in a serious dialogue."

A White House official told NBC News they were "surprised" by Cantor's public response to what they thought was a "pleasant call" from the president wishing the Congressman a Happy Passover in which immigration came up. 

Despite Cantor's avowed interest in passing immigration legislation, House GOP leaders have put the issue on hold amid fierce conservative opposition to any measures aimed at addressing the approximately 11.7 million people living in America without legal status. As the president noted in his statement, the few major immigration bills to make it to the House floor this session would actually make it easier to deport young undocumented immigrants, often referred to as DREAMers.

“Unfortunately, Republicans in the House of Representatives have repeatedly failed to take action, seemingly preferring the status quo of a broken immigration system over meaningful reform,” Obama said. “Instead of advancing commonsense reform and working to fix our immigration system, House Republicans have voted in favor of extreme measures like a punitive amendment to strip protections from ‘Dreamers.’”

The Senate bill, which was co-authored by Democrats Chuck Schumer, Bob Menendez, Dick Durbin, and Michael Bennett and Republicans Marco Rubio, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Jeff Flake, passed in June 2013. House Republicans immediately declared it dead on arrival, pledging instead to pursue reform through a series of smaller bills. Despite releasing an outline for reform in January that contained the same general goals as the supposedly unacceptable Senate bill, the House GOP never moved on to releasing actual legislation to counter the Senate bill, let alone bring it up for a vote. 

"House Republicans do not support Senate Democrats’ immigration bill and amnesty efforts."'

Cantor reiterated to Obama in his call that "House Republicans do not support Senate Democrats' immigration bill and amnesty efforts," but offered no indication that they planned on releasing an alternative this year -- or ever. Instead, Cantor suggested the president look at "other issues where we can find common ground, build trust and get America working again."

At this rate, the GOP may end the year further to the right than Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” immigration platform, which contributed to the party’s dismal showing with Latino voters in 2012. 

Immigration activists, who are increasingly working under the assumption that the GOP has given up on the issue, have been pressuring the White House to bypass Congress entirely and halt deportations for unauthorized immigrants who would gain legal status under the Senate bill. Obama ordered a review of deportation policies last month, but has told activists in the past that his ability to make major changes without congressional approval are limited.

Regardless of his own next moves, Obama is clearly intent on making crystal clear to immigration advocates exactly who’s to blame for reform’s demise in Congress ahead of the midterm elections. 

“We have a chance to strengthen our country while upholding our traditions as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants, and I urge House Republicans to listen to the will of the American people and bring immigration reform to the House floor for a vote,” Obama said.