How the White House Scandals Help Immigration Reform Move Forward

While Washington dithers over Benghazi, AP-gate, and the IRS, advocates for immigrants just keep plugging along.

John Moore/Getty

As one scandal after another engulfed the White House last week, proponents of immigration reform feared the worst—that the voracious focus on the Obama administration’s missteps would overshadow, and perhaps even doom, their efforts for comprehensive immigration reform during the rest of the president’s second term.

What unfolded instead was just the opposite, as advocates of reform had their best week to date even as the White House ducked, parried, denied, and deflected questions related to the IRS, AP, and Benghazi debacles.

“We hope there’s a fourth scandal,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice and a leader on immigration-reform efforts. “While all of this goes on, we’re just plugging along on this under the radar.”

Sharry said that instead of conservative media taking shots at the immigration bill in an effort to derail it, as reform proponents expected, talk-radio hosts and other opponents of immigration reform have been consumed by the president’s recent problems instead.

“The best hope for the opposition to reform was for the right-wing echo chamber to take hold of this and distort and define it,” he said. “But the chamber has been focused on other things.”

Proof in point is the pace of the legislative process, which last week marched steadily forward despite the mess that consumed the White House and its allies.

While White House press secretary Jay Carney took a hailstorm of reporters’ questions about Benghazi, the IRS, and the AP, senators on the Judiciary Committee sat for hours at a time, methodically debating the immigration bill and plowing through dozens of amendments to it, even joking among themselves about who was keeping whom from lunch by talking too long. Nobody even brought up the scandals consuming the rest of Washington.

In the Republican-led House, Speaker John Boehner used his weekly press conference to lash out at the administration for its “arrogance of power” in the three scandals. But he also urged a group of eight House members to keep working to produce a “reasonable” immigration bill. Although the group was at an impasse Thursday morning, they had a breakthrough Thursday night after Boehner’s admonition.

Still, a senior Republican staffer close to the process warned that the smooth sailing last week should not be mistaken for a victory on the issue. The staffer predicted that the White House scandals could “metastasize into a broader narrative” and eventually derail immigration legislation, which he said is already “teetering on the edge of a knife.”

“With so many of our fresh new voices who have made a theme of theirs the excesses of government power, I do think it creates a natural niche,” the staffer said. “The scandals inject lifeblood into a point that we’ve been trying to make for a long time—that the administration is not dealing honestly with the American people.”

A senior Republican added that while conservative media has not focused on immigration reform for the last week, it will soon. “If you’ve been talking for that last 10 days about these scandals, I am not sure how much appetite there will be for Republicans to give the president a victory on what he has said is his top priority.”

Although it’s true that the president has called immigration an important priority and even singled it out on Sunday as an area in which he’s hoping for progress, his administration has been notably disengaged from immigration negotiations on Capitol Hill. Ironically, both proponents and opponents of reform agree that the president’s distance from the legislation is one of the best things the current process has going for it, particularly in light of recent events.

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The biggest obstacle immigration reform faces? The House Republican caucus, which is split between rock-ribbed opponents like Rep. Steve King and more moderate leaders with an eye on future elections, like Rep. Paul Ryan, who know that swing-state Senate seats and the White House will remain in Democratic hands if Latino voters continue to feel alienated from Republicans in the long term.

Key issues that could prevent a broad agreement in the House are whether new immigrants will be eligible for health-care coverage under the Affordable Care Act, and who would pay for it—the immigrants, their employers, or the federal government.

“Boehner has a problem,” says a senior Democratic staffer involved in the House negotiations. “Republicans do not have the votes by themselves to pass an immigration bill, and they need an immigration bill. At some point they are going to have to come to the table and be reasonable.”