Friday, 06 Mar 2015 09:14 AM

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi pulled Republicans from the brink of shutting down the U.S. Department of Homeland Security this week. Don’t expect her to help them out of any similar bind on immigration policy.

Prospects for progress this year on rewriting the nation’s immigration laws have always been dim. Members of both parties say that’s even more the case after House Republicans lost their bid to use a Homeland Security spending bill to roll back President Barack Obama’s orders easing deportation of undocumented immigrants.

Republicans want to secure the border, boost immigration enforcement inside the U.S. and create programs for high- and low-skilled workers.

“The Democrats are not going to just give us all those things,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. He negotiated a comprehensive bill passed by his chamber in 2013 that included a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Graham said he’s worried that Congress this year won’t advance any “rational and bipartisan” plan.

“That would be bad” for Republicans in next year’s election, he said. “How we deal with immigration in 2015 really matters to our prospects in 2016.”

After Tuesday’s vote on Homeland Security funding, Pelosi said the lesson was that Democrats are united.

“That’s where our strength sprang from,” she said, “the unity of the House Democrats.”

‘Jigsaw’ Strategy

Tea Party-aligned conservatives are angry with their Republican leaders because they failed to stop Obama’s immigration orders. Representative Steve King of Iowa accuses House Speaker John Boehner of using a “jigsaw” strategy to push for a comprehensive immigration law, which King opposes.

That means Boehner will need Democrats, who demand a road to legalization for undocumented immigrants.

Pelosi isn’t likely to extend a helping hand on a Republican strategy for rewriting border and interior security laws that Democrats consider costly and ineffective, and that don't address immigrants already in the U.S.

Democrats plan to use immigration before the 2016 election to appeal to Hispanic voters upset over Republicans’ efforts to deport their friends and relatives.

The House refused during the past two years to consider the Senate immigration bill or to offer its own plan. Obama then issued his orders in November protecting about 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.

When House Republicans insisted on linking Homeland Security funds to a halt in Obama’s orders, Pelosi of California helped Boehner narrowly avoid an agency shutdown on Feb. 27 by delivering votes for a one-week funding extension.

Full-Year Funding

Then on Tuesday, Democrats provided most of the votes for a full-year funding bill after Boehner told his members they must drop their attempt to thwart Obama on immigration.

The president’s immigration orders are on hold anyway, under an order by a federal judge in Brownsville, Texas. The administration says it will appeal the order on Monday if the judge doesn’t lift it.

The calendar is also an impediment. Lawmakers soon will pivot to the 2016 campaign, and before that Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling and pass a highway bill and the next budget.

Canceled Vote

The first step to a comprehensive immigration policy in the Republican Congress is a border-security plan. Many Republicans insist on a practically airtight border before creating employment rules for low- and high-skilled workers.

Yet in January Boehner had to cancel a vote on a bill that would require securing heavily trafficked border areas within two years, construction of 27 miles of new fence, and creation of a biometric identity system for all points of entry to the U.S.

Conservatives balked because the plan didn’t include increased immigration enforcement within the U.S.

The conservatives’ stance “made absolutely no sense,” said Peter King, a New York Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee. “It would have been the strictest border- security bill in the history of Congress,” he said.

“It’s going to be tough” to do anything this year, King said.

Passage of a border-security measure could create momentum among Republicans for other immigration legislation. Yet what Republicans are calling piecemeal reform is what Democrats consider “anti-immigrant,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary immigration and border subcommittee.

Electronic System

Judiciary Committee members advanced two enforcement bills this week that got no Democratic votes. One would require employers to use a system to electronically certify new hires’ eligibility to work in the U.S.

The proposal “turns off the jobs magnet that attracts so many illegal immigrants to the U.S.,” bill sponsor Lamar Smith of Texas said in a statement.

Because so many agricultural workers are undocumented, the measure would devastate the farm industry, Lofgren said during the hearing.

The committee also voted to speed the deportation of undocumented immigrant children who traveled to the U.S. alone. Minors from countries that don’t border the U.S. would face the same quicker removal proceedings as those from Mexico or Canada.

Last year more than 68,000 such children were apprehended at the border, according to Republicans on the committee, overwhelming some states’ ability to provide care.

Immigration Judges

The bill would provide hearings before immigration judges within 14 days for some child-trafficking victims.

Some Democrats objected to that approach, saying most children, especially those who don’t speak English or have been traumatized, aren’t prepared to appear before a judge.

“I don’t believe those bills will ever become law,” Lofgren said. “I’m always willing to sit down and try and come up with a workable plan, but I’m not seeing that that is in the cards this Congress.”

Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican and chairman of the immigration subcommittee, plans to offer separate bills to create contract programs for agriculture and high-technology workers.

The difficulty in passing immigration legislation, he said, is that Democrats will block any proposal that doesn’t include a path to legalization, which Republicans consider amnesty.

For Obama, “It wouldn’t be good enough unless it dealt with all of it,” Issa said. “That position is the position that stops immigration reform from going through.”

Campaign Issue

The policy differences mean that immigration probably will be more of a campaign issue than a legislative achievement before the 2016 election.

Democrats say the Republicans have staked out an indefensible position.

“They voted to deport Dreamers,” said Lofgren, referring to a House vote Jan. 14 to undo Obama’s 2012 orders giving children a reprieve from deportation. “I don’t think that’s a very popular position in this country,” she said.

--With assistance from Kathleen Miller, Kathleen Hunter and Billy House in Washington.