Senior Democrat predicts Republican 'cave in' on US immigration reform

Harry Reid, the leader of the Democrats in the US Senate, has predicted that John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives ('The House'), will eventually 'cave in' and allow a vote on the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act 2013 ('The Act').

If Mr Boehner were to do so, there is a good chance that The Act, which has already been passed by the Senate, will become law.

Mr Reid, a senator from Nevada, told The Las Vega Sun newspaper that Mr Boehner would be forced to allow a vote. He said 'I think there's going to be so much pressure [from pro-reform activists] on the House that they'll have to pass it.

Republicans must 'get right with the Hispanic community'

Mr Reid continued 'If the Republicans ever want to elect a Republican president again, they're going to have to get right with the Hispanic and Asian community who, by more than 70%, voted for Obama last time'.

Under the US system, any bill must be passed by the Senate and the House and then signed by the President to become law. The Senate is controlled by the Democrats with a narrow majority. The House is controlled by the Republicans with a narrow majority. President Obama is a Democrat.

Mr Boehner has so far refused to allow the House to vote on The Act. He relies on the so-called 'Hastert Rule'. This 'rule' allows the speaker of the House, who always comes from the larger party, to deny a vote on a bill unless, in his opinion there is a 'majority of the majority' in favour of passing it.

Hastert Rule

In this instance, this means that, unless more than half of Republicans say they will support The Act, Mr Boehner will not allow a vote on it. There are 435 seats in the House. The Republicans hold 234 and the Democrats hold 201. The Act requires 60% support in order to become law.

This means 261 people would have to vote in favour of the Act. As all Democrats would probably support the Act, this would mean that only 61 Republicans would have to vote for it for the Act to pass.

Democrats believe that sufficient Republicans would support the Act if there was a vote in the House.

117 Republican votes required

But, under the Hastert Rule, half of Republicans, more than 117 Republicans, would have to indicate support for the Act before Mr Boehner even allowed a vote. Critics of 'the Hastert Rule' say that it is unconstitutional. Even Speaker Hastert, after whom it is named, denies that it is a rule at all.

Immigration reformers are attempting to place pressure on Mr Boehner but, so far, he has refused to listen. Washington commentators say that Mr Boehner is in a difficult position because right-wing Republicans are vehemently opposed to any vote.

Immigration activists continue to attempt to put pressure on Mr Boehner.

Immigration an election issue in 2012

Immigration became a campaign issue in the 2012 presidential election. While both parties agreed that the system was broken and needed reform, they were diametrically opposed in their policies to fix it. The issue of what to do about the estimated 11.5m people currently living illegally in the US in particular divides the parties.

At the election, the president promised that he would take action to create a 'pathway to citizenship' for illegal immigrants. The Republicans, on the other hand, promised that they would introduce a policy of 'self-deportation'. This involved making life so uncomfortable for illegal immigrants that they would choose to leave the country.

It is estimated that over half of illegal immigrants in the US are of Mexican descent and that 80% are from Latin America. A further 10% are thought to be from Asia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, President Obama won over 70% of the vote from Hispanic voters and Asian American voters.

Immigration instrumental in Obama victory

Some commentators believe that this may have been the decisive factor that won the election for President Obama over his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Some senior Republicans believe that, unless the Republicans change their position on what to do about illegal immigration, they will never see another Republican in the White House. Others, however, are so opposed to granting an 'amnesty' to illegal immigrants that they do not seem to mind.

Since 2009, the Republican Party has been increasingly influenced by the radical right-wing Tea Party movement. The Tea Party has influenced many Republican primary. Moderate sitting candidates have been deselected and right-wing, anti-immigration anti-compromise candidates have replaced them.

Provisions of the Act

If it became law, the Act would provide that
  • There would be an increase in border security spending of $4.5bn (The US already spends $18bn annually)
  • A 'pathway to citizenship' for illegal immigrants without criminal records would be created. Immigrants would need to learn English, pay a fine of $500 and pay back taxes on any money earned while working illegally
  • Foreign students with higher degrees such as Masters degrees and PhDs from US universities would be eligible to apply for US permanent resident visas ('green cards')
  • There would be many more H-1B visas (which allow foreign graduates (or equivalent) workers to work in a specialty occupation in the US). The existing current annual cap of 65,000 could rise to 180,000. There would be no cap for applicants with higher degrees
  • There would be a 'w-visa' for low-skilled workers in agriculture and construction
  • US employers would be required to check the employment status of all workers against the E-Verify system before employing them. E-Verify is an online database which allows employers to check the immigration status of potential employees.

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