WASHINGTON, D.C.—In 1993, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol employed 4,028 agents—with 86 percent stationed on the U.S. border with Mexico. By 2012, border patrol agents had quintupled to 21,394, and 87 percent were located on the southern border. The border between North Korea and South Korea is the only international boundary in the world with more patrol agents, but that didn’t stop the U.S. Senate from promising to double border patrol agents to 40,000 as part of a massive immigration reform law passed in June.
“Did the chief of the Border Patrol say that that’s what they needed get the job done, or did senators just come up with those nice, round numbers to get some additional votes for the immigration bill?” Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., asked at a congressional hearing in late July.
House members are asking the hard questions as they sift through the good and bad points of the Senate’s 1,200-page immigration overhaul, which House Speaker John Boehner immediately pronounced dead on arrival. Republicans, armed with the knowledge that many Americans may not like the Senate bill, headed to their districts during the August recess focused on delivering a softer, gentler message on immigration reform.
The GOP will likely find plenty of people who want to talk about it: Advocacy groups on both sides—viewing the recess as a make-or-break moment for reform efforts—mobilized grassroots to wage ideological war on the issue in home districts. In late July more than 400 business groups representing every state in the country wrote to House leaders urging them to “not let this momentum slip and progress vanish,” and more than 100 conservative donors penned a similar letter.
Polls indicate House Republicans are winning the argument that the piece-by-piece approach to reform is a better way to deal it. Even the Los Angeles Times called the House’s Border Security Results Act—potentially the most divisive part of reform—a “sensible piece of legislation” that “strikes a fair balance between enforcement and fiscal responsibility.”
Of all the things the Senate bill is, fiscally responsible isn’t one of them: It includes $46 billion in spending—roughly equivalent to the entire 2014 budget request for the State Department and USAID—on everything from drones and night vision goggles to a $1.5 billion “jobs for youth” program (a pet project of Vermont’s Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders and a once-rejected part of the Obama jobs bill).
House leadership remains mum on its time frame for bringing up immigration bills for a vote, but Rep. Paul Ryan, last year’s GOP vice presidential nominee, may have let it slip at a recent Wisconsin town hall meeting. He said the plan is to begin in October bringing up a string of five or six bills that would address border security, interior enforcement, overhauling the visa system—which many conservatives say is most important—and a path to legalization (and possibly citizenship) for the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
Boehner pledged only to allow bills to the floor that have support from the majority of Republicans. With most Americans broadly supporting reform but not necessarily the Senate bill, Josh Culling with Americans for Tax Reform, one of the leading conservative groups advocating for reform, said the GOP has an opportunity to take credit for passing potentially popular legislation. “The number of Republicans who are broadly ‘no’ on everything is very small,” he told me. “The vast majority of the caucus is working on something [related to immigration].”
The chief obstacle to immigration reform may be Democrats: Behind the scenes Republicans are frustrated that some Democrats, led by Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., are undermining negotiations in order to kill reform and blame Republicans in the 2014 election.
Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, dropped out of a bipartisan House group that included Becerra, saying Democrats reneged on an agreement that legalized immigrants would have to purchase private health insurance: “What might be the story at the end of the year is that Obamacare killed immigration reform.”
Many evangelical leaders, although not all, have continued to play a prominent role in pushing for reform, holding a string of events in home districts and on Capitol Hill, and designating days of prayer and lobbying. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, told me he left a recent meeting with Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and other House leaders optimistic that reform will happen. He predicted Christians will make the difference: “The evangelical community will be primarily responsible for the passage of immigration reform.”
But, with Congress scheduled to work only nine days total in August and September and a new round of budget fights on tap for the fall, time and the will to reform could make it an uphill effort.