Immigration Reform ‘Hell-Bent’ — or Hell-Bound?


Marchers call on House Speaker John Boehner to support moving forward on immigration reform on May 1, 2014 in Los Angeles.

Photograph by David McNew/Getty Images

Marchers call on House Speaker John Boehner to support moving forward on immigration reform on May 1, 2014 in Los Angeles.

Never have the words “hell-bent” created so much excitement in Washington.

Pushing for immigration overhaul means hanging onto whatever hope one can find.

No issue may fit the Charlie-Brown-and-the-football comparison more so than immigration reform, which advocates have been pushing since the 1990s. A promising drive in 2001 was derailed by the Sept. 11 terror attacks. President George W. Bush’s second-term attempt tumbled along with his approval ratings.

The latest try was mounted last year. A bill with a guest-worker program backed by groups from the United Farm Workers of America to the Western Growers Association succeeded in the Senate and then crashed in the House, where lawmakers insisted on a piecemeal approach that ended up with very few pieces and no meal to serve.

But the words “hell-bent” — spoken by House Speaker John Boehner and reported by the Wall Street Journal — breathed new life into an effort many had written off for 2014.

The importance of legislation for agriculture, traditionally one of the toughest areas for immigration  compromise, is clear. American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman told Bloomberg in April that farm exports would be harmed without a better guest-worker program.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Bloomberg on April 28 that a bill would pass Congress under President Barack Obama, if for no other reason because Republican lawmakers fear anti-immigration challengers in primaries less than in past election cycles.

A new drive seems ready to begin. But the goalposts are already moving. Boehner, facing criticism from conservative members in his caucus, is showing less willingness to drive the Highway to Hell than his earlier reported remarks indicated, tying immigration to a wait-and-see approach toward what Obama may do. Still, advocates hold out hope that legislation could move in June or July — after primary elections — and several Republican lawmakers are seeking compromise on the issue.

And in this way, tentatively, Congress tiptoes toward another run at revising immigration laws. But with the mixed signals coming from House leadership, is it already doomed?

Charlie Brown has made this run before. It may require a fully “hell-bent” Charlie — and maybe more than that — to finally connect.

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