Bleak prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in near future

Just days after Congress killed the DREAM Act, voices on all sides of the immigration reform debate say it’s unlikely there will be much movement on the issue during the next two years.

With Republicans poised to assume House control in January, immigrant-rights advocates see scant chance legislation to grant illegal immigrants any kind of foothold in the U.S. could move through the lower chamber.

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But with Democrats still holding the Senate and the White House, conservatives urging a harder line on deportations and citizenship requirements aren't terribly optimistic about those proposals either.

The likely result is an impasse of sorts on the immigration-reform front through the 112th Congress, observers say, with lawmakers stepping up oversight of the administration's enforcement efforts, but unable to enact major changes of their own.

"I would expect 'small ball' — smaller, more-targeted measures that aren't meant to remake the immigration system altogether," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a D.C.-based think tank advocating for tougher enforcement of immigration laws. "Logic would dictate … they'll be doing a lot of oversight."

ACLU Legislative Counsel Joanne Lin echoed that sentiment, noting the House Republicans poised to chair the panels with primary jurisdiction over immigration policy — Reps. Lamar Smith (Texas) and Steve King (Iowa) — "are about as far away from supporting comprehensive immigration reform as anyone can be."

"I don't see a way forward” on comprehensive reform, Lin said.

Smith — an immigration hard-liner who will head the House Judiciary Committee next year — has said his first two immigration-related hearings will focus on work-place enforcement and E-verify, a program allowing employers to check the legal status of potential hires.

“They are what I call ‘70 percent’ issues — 70 percent or more of the American people support those efforts,” Smith told Politico last week.

Still, those efforts are tamer than proposals Smith and King have championed in the past, including a bill empowering states to become their own immigration enforcers and another overturning the long-held interpretation of the 14th Amendment as granting citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal residents.

"We don’t have any specific plans now in the early months to move on these issues," Smith said. "The focus is on creating jobs and protecting jobs."

King is expected to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee's immigration subpanel.

The failure of the DREAM Act in the Senate was another signal that major immigration reforms aren't likely. That proposal — creating a pathway to legal residency, and then citizenship, for illegal immigrant students — was widely seen as having the best chance of any immigration-related measure. That Congress couldn't pass the bill even with Democratic majorities in both chambers has left immigrant advocates without much hope for the bill in a GOP-controlled House.

In the days following the bill's defeat, President Obama met with leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to assure them he’d continue to try to advance similar reforms next year — a gesture dismissed by immigration hard-liners as more political than practical.

Not that immigration-rights advocates are ready to give up. Tyler Moran, policy director of the National Immigration Law Center, said Hill lawmakers were bombarded with at least 850,000 calls, e-mails and faxes from DREAM Act supporters just in the last three months.

"Everyone is ready to throw down and continue that pressure next year," Moran said. "It was a long, tough fall, and everyone's just kind of paused to take a breath. But there will be an affirmative agenda."

Moran warned that GOP leaders should be wary of alienating Hispanic residents — a growing voting bloc.

"If Republicans are strategic, they'll take advantage of their leadership position and push for comprehensive reform. It's in their hands — and it's possible," Moran said. "If they don't, I think they'll feel it at the polls in 2012."

Krikorian said House Republicans could win support for several proposals dabbling at the edges of immigration reform, including a bill eliminating the business tax deduction on wages paid to illegal workers and another requiring all employers to use the E-verify system for new hires.

Krikorian also hopes House Republicans will put more pressure on the Department of Homeland Security to deport more illegal residents for being in the U.S. illegally, not merely if they’ve committed another crime.

"People who aren't drug dealers and murderers need to understand that they're deportable, too," Krikorian said.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who's poised to chair the Homeland Security Committee, accused the White House on Wednesday of "a real lack of urgency" when it comes to enforcing immigration laws in the workplace.

"If they see that we're going to strictly enforce our immigration laws, then you're less likely to see people taking the risk of coming across the border," King told Fox News.

Still, even King conceded there's nothing lawmakers can do to stem the flow of illegal immigrants entirely.

"It's never going to be totally secure," King said of the nation's border. "We live in the real world. There's always going to be some gaps."