Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 22 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Syria puts US immigration reform on back burner

Optimistic: Ciaran Staunton
Optimistic: Ciaran Staunton

With debate over US military action against Syria at fever pitch, many other issues in America have taken a back seat – including the vexed question of immigration reform.

Since Republicans were pummelled in the 2012 presidential sweepstakes, partially due to Barack Obama winning 70% of the Hispanic vote, it seemed a no-brainer that they would row in behind immigration reform efforts well before campaigning for the 2014 mid-terms begin.

But, to date at least, a small, but vocal group of Republican hardliners has blocked the party's leadership from striking a deal.

Poll after poll has shown strong public support for immigration reform. For example, a recent Gallup survey found more than 70% backing for a conditional "pathway to citizenship".

Hispanics – a pivotal voting constituency – back the pathway by almost 80%, according to a Latino Decisions poll.

Now Syria muddies the waters. Leaders of both parties who support US military action will have to expend political capital to bring reluctant colleagues into line.

And, although Congress's 535 members are more than capable of juggling many balls at once, the number of heavy ones currently airborne is significant.

Between now and mid-October, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives will have to work out a deal on whether or not to expand America's debt ceiling. They'll also have to authorise a temporary budget to avert a government shutdown by October 1.

Congress will likely be pretty dysfunctional this autumn.

The major movement on immigration so far has been the Senate, which passed a reform bill in June by a 68 to 32 margin.

More than 1,000 pages in length, it includes a multi-conditional, 13-year-long pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, including roughly 50,000 Irish.

However, Republican hardliners in the House have thus far blocked passage of anything resembling the Senate's bill.

But the biggest impediment to immigration reform this year is time. That's because, although there are more than three months left in the year, Congress has only 39 working days left.

And next year, an election with a third of the Senate's 100 seats and all of the House's 435 slots up for grabs, will see deal-cutting take a back seat to speech-making a until the November elections.

That isn't to say that a deal won't be done. Mayo-born Ciaran Staunton, a longtime New York resident, who's a leading figure of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR), remains optimistic that a Senate-House deal can be cut before the current Congress ends its session in January 2015.

"I still think there is a 60 to 70% chance of immigration reform happening in this Congress," said Staunton.

And he points out that Republicans know full well that inaction will come back to haunt them.

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