Why Immigration Reform May Die in the House

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With the Senate passing its version of an immigration bill last week — complete with a guest worker provision and a path to citizenship for illegals — attention is now focused on the House, which has supported a bill that deals only with border enforcement. So far, the House has showed little signs of budging, and has suggested the public backs its approach. But in fact, polls suggest large majorities of Americans support something akin to what President Bush and the Senate have pushed, a so-called "comprehensive reform" law that would create a guest worker program and provide some path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. A recent poll from Fox News showed about 63% of Americans supported the Senate approach, a CBS poll puts that number at around 77%, depending on the wording of the question. Meanwhile, a New York Times poll showed 66% of Americans opposed a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, one of the key provisions in the House bill.

Yet most Republican members of the House of Representatives, even the most vulnerable in this election year, are adamantly opposed to the Senate bill. Which raises the question, why would the politicians who should be most attuned to public opinion take a position so seemingly opposed to it?

It may come down to one word: intensity. Whatever the national numbers, moderate House Republicans like New York's Peter King, who has been a strong supporter of the House border-security-only approach, say the people who call their offices and show up at town halls want tighter restrictions on immigration. Congressional Republicans are worried that in a mid-term election, where voter turnout is usually much lower than for a presidential year, keeping core Republican supporters motivated is key. And according to recent poll results from the Pew Research Center, 19% of Republicans cite immigration as the country's biggest problem, while only 9% of independents and 6% of Democrats rank it so highly. Supporting Bush's proposal for guest workers and citizenship for illegal immigrants, if you're a House Republican, may be a way to lose votes among Republicans (who could sit out the election rather than vote for a member who supports a guest worker program) without gaining any from independents or Democrats, who aren't as fired up about immigration as they are by gas prices and the war in Iraq.

To be sure, there is intensity on the other side of the immigration debate, as the pro-immigration rallies in April showed. But those may have little impact on the 2006 congressional elections. The rallies were in cities like Los Angeles that are already represented by pro-immigrant, Democratic Congressmen. Most of the districts Republicans have to win in are places like Columbus, Ohio, and Westport, Connecticut — suburban areas without huge Hispanic voting-populations. And while Latinos are growing as a politically influential voting block, they still only account for 6% of the voting population.

In fact, the dynamics of the immigration issue so far look remarkably similar to those of a perennial controversial issue in Washington: abortion. As with immigration, polls show that more than 60% of Americans support the more "liberal" position on abortion, namely that a woman should have a right to an abortion. But as with support for comprehensive immigration reform, that varies widely depending on how a question is phrased. And over the last two decades, the voters most active and motivated on the abortion issue have been abortion opponents, which explains why congressional Republicans have worked so hard to put anti-abortion judges on the bench and passed restrictions on late-term abortions, and state legislatures have passed laws requiring parental notification for abortion. Those moves have excited the GOP base, but haven't caused much of a negative reaction from swing voters, because they haven't threatened the majority position on abortion.

Of course, the House Republicans still have to worry about going too far. When two segments of the House Republican bill — provisions that would have made it a felony to be in the country illegally and one that would have increased penalties for church groups and other social service organizations that help illegals — caught public attention, they were so strongly opposed that many Republicans distanced themselves from those parts of the bill. Those provisions were viewed as being more anti-immigrant than most of the public is comfortable with, so House Republicans (and the Senate, which supported a 350-mile fence) will have to careful in framing the fence as a legitimate security issue.

But there seems an easy way for Republicans to keep their base happy on immigration and not lose swing voters in the process. Certain "get tough" proposals on immigration, such as sending National Guard troops to the border and increasing the number of border agents, get more than 60% support from all Americans, and at the same time appease the Republican base. Which is why House members, who supported President Bush's position on other issues even when they doubted the wisdom of it, may buck that trend when it comes time to bargain with the Senate over immigration later this summer.