Immigration standoff

How can anything good come from threatening Department of Homeland Security funding?

There is something truly unsavory about targeting for deportation immigrant children — particularly those known by the shorthand of "dreamers" who were brought to this country at a young age by their parents — but that was the priority of House Republicans last week. Not all in the GOP went along, of course, but the caucus demonstrated forcefully that all that talk about compromise and bipartisanship of late was so much hot air.

Rest assured, the bill approved by the House on a 236 to 191 vote last Wednesday is not about to become law. That little dust-up over the dreamers, which caused 26 House Republicans to desert their ranks and vote against eliminating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, is a preview of what is likely to happen in the U.S. Senate where Republicans don't hold a big enough majority to overcome either a filibuster or a veto.

The most generous thing that might be said of the House vote is that Republican members are so set on reversing President Barack Obama's executive actions relating to immigration that they don't care much about the consequences. How else to explain the urgency to go after kids instead of targeting criminals or serial immigration violators for deportation through prosecutorial discretion, as the president has ordered?

Making matters worse is that Congress has held up funding for the Department of Homeland Security to attach these immigration amendments, apparently on the notion that this could be used as leverage against President Obama and the Democrats. Really? With the attack in Paris, the Sony hacking case, the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria or the recent arrest of an ISIS supporter in Ohio who was allegedly intent on attacking members of Congress, Republicans really want to hold DHS hostage? Is that what they think the public is clamoring for right now, a shutdown of the security agency?

What makes that strategy especially futile is that the functions the conservatives are so incensed about — enforcement practices of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — are financed through fees, so the work is largely unaffected by the appropriations bill. Even if Congress fails to pass the agency's funding before the Feb. 27 deadline, it's not clear exactly how much of the department's functions would be curtailed considering how many — airport screening, for instance — are regarded as essential.

Yet this feels like familiar territory. Conservatives need to make this symbolic protest to demonstrate to the folks back home that they were serious about all that rhetoric they spouted during the midterm election campaign about how President Obama exceeded his authority on immigration. It's like Sen. Ted Cruz complaining about Obamacare for the hundredth time rather than seeking to pass health care legislation of consequence. Perhaps they just need to make an empty gesture.

But it may well be a self-destructive one. While Republicans are likely to insist on getting some concession out of this exercise, the incentive to do so given how foolish a DHS shutdown would be is not that great. Ask for something too big, and Republicans will just get a veto and watch as Latino groups cheer for the Democrat in the White House. Then the House GOP can always talk about pending lawsuits to stop Mr. Obama's immigration policies, another political winner.

Admittedly, even with Mr. Obama's executive actions, all of which are temporary, U.S. immigration policy remains a problem. What's needed is comprehensive reform, the kind that only Congress can pass but doesn't appear to have much interest in doing. Real reform would offer a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country — something along the lines of what the Senate approved in 2013 but the House won't even consider.

All this exercise really proves is that Republican moderates haven't really taken control of their party, two-day retreats in Hershey, Pa. notwithstanding. Perhaps Congress can at least pass legislation granting more green cards to highly-skilled foreign laborers (a priority for the tech industry) as backed by GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio, but even that seems doubtful in these polarized times. Immigration remains locked in a political standoff in Washington, and some turnover in Congress isn't going to change that.

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