Boehner 'hopeful' that US immigration reform will happen this year

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The speaker of the US House of Representatives, John Boehner, has said that he is 'hopeful' that 'the House' will pass immigration reform this year. He told journalists on October 23rd 2013, 'I think immigration is an important subject that needs to be addressed and I'm hopeful [that it will be]'.

However, Mr Boehner refused to answer journalists' questions as to when he might introduce a bill. Democrats may be sceptical about Mr Boehner's claim to be 'hopeful'; as speaker, Mr Boehner is responsible for putting bills before the House for a vote. He has so far refused to put a bill already passed by the Senate before the House because a majority of Republicans oppose it.

Under the US system, for a bill to become law, it must be passed by both houses of Congress; the upper house, the Senate and the lower house, the House of Representatives. In July, the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act 2013 (The Border Security Act'). This bill would, if it became law, introduce comprehensive immigration reform. Mr Boehner has so far refused to put that bill before the House for a vote, thereby preventing it from becoming law.

Hastert Rule

Mr Boehner says that 'the Hastert Rule' prevents him from doing so. The Hastert Rule is an informal principle which has no basis in the Constitution. It is named after the former Republican speaker Dennis Hastert who was speaker from 1999-2007. The rule means that a speaker of the House will only put legislation before the House if 'a majority of the majority' that is to say, over half of all members of the larger party in the House support it.

The 'rule' is not really a rule at all and even Speaker Hastert said in 2013, 'The Hastert Rule never really existed. It's kind of a nonentity as far as I'm concerned'. Nonetheless, many speakers of the House use their position to prevent the House from voting on bills brought by the opposing party. Democrats are urging Speaker Boehner to waive the Hastert Rule and allow a vote on the Border Security Act.

But, so far at least, Mr Boehner has refused. The House has 435 seats. There are currently 231 Republicans, so for Boehner to allow a vote without breaking the Hastert Rule, at least 116 Republicans will have to express support for the bill. At present, there are nowhere near that many.

Boehner 'standing in the way of democracy'

Democrats claim that Boehner is thwarting the will of the people. They cite polls which show that about 60% of Americans support reform. House Democrats believe that there are enough Republicans in the House who support the Act for it to become law if Mr Boehner will allow a vote.

Mr Boehner has broken the Hastert Rule five times already in 2013. Democrats are hopeful that he will do it again. But Mr Boehner is under great pressure from right-wing Republicans elected since 2009 with the support of the right-wing Tea Party movement.

These Representatives are against 'big government' and have done everything that they can to thwart President Obama since they reached Congress. Their opposition to the President has led them to vote against almost any legislation that the Democrats have proposed.

Tea Party Republicans particularly angry at the moment

They are currently particularly angry after they attempted, and failed, to make the President reform his 'Obamacare' health insurance programme in return for authorising the federal budget. The Tea Party contingent is said by Washington commentators to be particularly keen to prevent the President from scoring any 'victories' in the remainder of the political year.

The President has promised to make immigration reform a priority of his second term. This will make the Tea Party Republicans particularly keen to thwart him.

The Tea Party Republicans are also largely against the Border Security Act. This is mostly because the bill, which aims to comprehensively reform the US immigration, will establish a 'pathway to citizenship' for most of the 11.5m people living in the US illegally. Republicans, and particularly Tea Party Republicans, say that to do so would be to reward people for breaking US law (by entering or remaining in the US illegally).

Proposed changes to immigration system

The Border Security Act would
  • Increase spending on border security
  • Establish a 'pathway to citizenship' for the most illegal immigrants. It would take over thirteen years for those who apply to become citizens
  • Award permanent resident visas (or 'green cards') for foreign students who receive doctorates and PhDs from US universities
  • Increase the number of H-1B 'specialty occupation' temporary work visas granted each year from 85,000 annually to a maximum of about 200,000 annually
  • Create a 'w-visa' for low-skilled workers in agriculture and construction
  • Require US employers to check the employment status of all workers against the E-Verify system before employing them
There are only five weeks left before Christmas when the House could vote on the Border Security Act. A Democrat Representative, Linda Sanchez of California, asked 'Speaker Boehner, what are you waiting for?' at a Washington news conference.

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