Shutdown Is Good News for Immigration Reform

People walk past a federal building in Los Angeles where immigration services remained open.

Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

House Democrats today introduced immigration reform legislation that’s not going to get very much coverage because it’s most likely dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled body. That said, though the odds of immigration reform passing are certainly slim and certainly look much worse than they did months ago, it seems to me that the odds of passage look much better today than they did a week ago.

Why’s that? Because the government shut down.

The funny thing about immigration reform is that almost uniquely among the Obama administration’s agenda items, lots of Republicans support it. Most don’t. At both a grassroots level and the level of legislators and party leaders, most Republicans favor some version of screw-tightening and self-deportation. But plenty of Republican businessmen and Republican politicians disagree with that and think immigration reform legislation is a useful piece of free-market economics that raises Americans’ incomes. You rarely meet a Republican who thinks it’s a bad idea for Americans to be allowed to buy goods that were made in foreign countries, and on roughly the same grounds that most Republicans support free trade, many Republicans think foreigners should be allowed to come here and perform useful work. That’s why comprehensive immigration reform got a fair number of Republican votes in the Senate and why it’s always seemed like there might be a few dozen House Republican votes for it.

The problem has always been the “Hastert Rule” principle. It looked for a little while like Republicans might decide to let it slide this time in the interests of getting the issue off the table. But the decision went the other way, and immigration reform was dead. Given that, the shutdown and the debt ceiling fight sort of count as good news. Not that they make immigration reform likely (it’s not likely!), but they at least the glimmer of a possibility of some kind of huge meltdown of the House GOP party cartel. The kind of “centrist coup” that could avert a debt ceiling breach would also open the door to immigration reform. The biggest thing holding reform back isn’t a lack of Republican supporters, it’s GOP commitment to the Hastert Rule. The more the budget fight escalates, the more likely a meltdown becomes. It’s a thin reed to cling to, but it’s the one immigration reform has.