Immigration Reform’s Lost Month

Success on the town hall circuit doesn't mean reform advocates will win in Congress

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Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS

Maria Cervantes, 6, takes part in a 24-hour vigil calling on Congress to pass immigration reform in Los Angeles, June 27, 2013.

August is nearly over, and with it ends the discussion over which side in the immigration debate enjoyed the upper hand while Congress was in recess. The verdict was nearly unanimous. It was also mistaken.

Proponents of reform, noted the Washington Post, launched an “all-out push,” pressing a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration law at “roundtables and rallies, sit-ins and voter registration drives, as well as expensive radio and television ads.” Meanwhile, opponents “have been mostly absent” from public view, wrote The Atlantic,. “Anti-immigration forces have lain low,” Politico agreed. Liberal blogs gleefully circulated photos of Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, an icon of the anti-reform movement, speaking to a sparse crowd on the first leg of a “Stop Amnesty” tour. Reform advocates have “prevailed” over the summer break, wrote The New Republic, under a headline that read: “Immigration Reform is Having a Good Month.”

But this assessment misses the forest for the trees.

If you measure success by events held and headlines generated, it’s true that the diverse array of groups who support immigration reform trounced a shrinking and disorganized opposition during the August recess. It also doesn’t matter much. An immigration overhaul like the bill that passed the Senate in June already enjoyed broad support among voters, including a majority of Republicans. The continuing success of the outside game does little to change the lack of momentum inside the Capitol.

(MORE: Can a Dusty Legislative Gambit Revive Immigration Reform?)

There is no timetable for legislative action in the House. Republicans have slow-walked the issue into a brief fall legislative session that will be dominated by another round of budget brinkmanship. The crowded calendar is one reason supporters had hoped the deal would be done by now, knowing the chances of success grow slimmer the longer the debate drags on.

Yes, a few dozen conservatives are open to a path to citizenship. But House Republicans have vowed not to take up the Senate bill, and an alternative proposal in the House never materialized. It seems unlikely a House Republican majority that has been content to let the issue languish will abruptly shift course — especially now that Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Raul Labrador, two of the Republicans with the credibility to sell an overhaul to their colleagues, have abandoned their roles as pitchmen.

Advocates were cheered by the dearth of organized opposition to reform because the conservative base has won recess battles in the past. In 2007, the grassroots rebelled at a George W. Bush-backed immigration proposal, and the 2009 recess furies foreshadowed the Republican landslide in the 2010 midterms. But grassroots strength is an imperfect portent of legislative success. Take Obamacare, which passed despite the Tea Party outcry at venomous town halls.

As one progressive involved in the immigration-reform push puts it: “Progressives need to be less confident that field and legislative outcomes are linked — a recurring illusion.” Even if immigration reform managed to “survive” August, it did so only on life support.

MORE: Exclusive: RNC Ups Immigration-Reform Pressure on Congressional GOP — but Rejects Path to Citizenship