The perilous fate of immigration reform

THE PERILOUS FATE OF IMMIGRATION REFORM…. In the abstract, when thinking about the kinds of key issues where compromise is possible in 2011 and 2012, immigration reform looks like a compelling option. President Obama’s approach is largely in line with the Bush/Cheney policy, and it’s not ridiculous to think some kind of deal could be reached with some Senate Republicans.

So, why does everyone assume an immigration reform package is doomed? Because House Republicans are an extreme bunch.

Immigration reform would not only be dead in a Republican House; the policy debate would take a decidedly rightward turn in the House Judiciary Committee, which could become a hotbed of conservative activism on one of the most volatile issues in U.S. politics.

Chairman-in-waiting Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has been an advocate of national Arizona-type immigration laws, implementing a mandatory verification program and revisiting the birthright citizenship guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Smith’s wingman on the Judiciary Committee would be Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the fiercest critics of illegal immigration, who would chair the immigration subcommittee.

It’s unrealistic to think of voters making choices on such a meta/strategic level, but by electing a Republican House majority, Americans would put some real radicals in key positions of authority. This is especially true on immigration. Steven King is easily one of the craziest people to serve in Congress in my lifetime, and any immigration bill would start in a subcommittee he’d chair.

Smith’s long-term cause has been a national mandatory verification program, which he has included in at least three bills since the early 1990s. One got through the House in 2005 despite the qualms of business groups. Smith has also been a longtime supporter of revising birthright citizenship so children can be U.S. citizens only if they have at least one legal parent, and he has conducted several hearings on the issue. […]

King, on the other hand, is well-known for headline-grabbing claims. At a tea party event in Colorado in June, he said he would support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants only if “every time we give amnesty for an illegal alien, we deport a liberal.”

In an interview with POLITICO, King promised to interrogate Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Eric Holder, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton and Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher about enforcement of immigration laws…. King rattled off a list of legislation he’d like to push to the floor: a birthright citizenship bill, legislation to reaffirm states’ right to enact Arizona-like immigration laws, a bill to take away deductions from employers who pay illegal immigrants and legislation to crack down on cities that don’t go after illegal residents.

I’ve seen a few pieces lately suggesting the lawmaking process won’t necessarily be a trainwreck in the event of a Republican-led House, and it’s still possible worthwhile bills might pass.

Under the circumstances, and with GOP figures publicly vowing to deliver gridlock and increased partisan strife, optimism is in short supply.