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The House GOP wants unauthorized immigrants to live in fear, but isn't doing much to deport them

House Republicans want unauthorized immigrants to feel John Boehner peering over their shoulders.
House Republicans want unauthorized immigrants to feel John Boehner peering over their shoulders.

The House of Representatives just approved a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security through this fall — on the condition that Obama agrees to roll back several policies that would protect unauthorized immigrants from deportation. It's the Republicans' opening play in their fight against the executive actions on immigration Obama took in November 2014, but it's also a statement of what the House Republican conference thinks should happen to the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the US. Their answer: unauthorized immigrants should be living under the constant threat of deportation, but the US government doesn't necessarily need to make an actual effort to deport them.

This would be a big shift from current policy — not least for unauthorized immigrants themselves. But it's also a long way from pushing "mass deportation" of unauthorized immigrants. And while it's based in the same principle as the doctrine of "self-deportation" that Mitt Romney popularized a few years ago, it's not quite that either.

The bill isn't going to become law, and it probably won't even make it to President Obama's desk. But it's important because this is the GOP's opening statement in 2015 about what they want immigration policy to look like, and how far they're willing to go to attack unauthorized immigrants. House conservatives like Steve King (R-IA) are in a position to move the rest of the GOP to the right on immigration through a long presidential primary, or at least force candidates to commit to specific positions. But the agenda they're pushing via this bill is more like a return to the George W. Bush era than a new way to "enforce the law."

What the GOP's amendments would do

immigration files

Under the House bill, applications would just pile up like this, untouched. (John Moore/Getty)

According to the bill the House approved today, the Department of Homeland Security wouldn't be allowed to use any funds — even those provided by application fees — to process any applications for the Obama administration's two programs to give unauthorized immigrants deferred action, which is a temporary grant of protection from deportation, and work permits.

One of those is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was instituted in 2012 and has protected about 600,000 young unauthorized immigrants; the other is the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program, which Obama announced in November 2014 but which hasn't started accepting applications yet, to protect millions of parents of US citizens or green-card holders.The result: young unauthorized immigrants would still be able to apply for the existing deferred-action program, but their applications would pile up unaddressed — and the new program for parents wouldn't be able to get off the ground at all.

The bill also rolls back other Administration policies about who Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents should, and shouldn't, be going after for deportation.

Since ICE agents can't deport all 11 million unauthorized immigrants, the government has two options. They can allow field agents to make the decisions about where to spend their energy and who to apprehend and deport — which leaves all unauthorized immigrants with the fear that they might be targeted next. Or they can direct agents about who to prioritize and who not to prioritize, allowing some unauthorized immigrants to feel less endangered.

The Obama administration has tried to take the latter path, writing a series of memos to agents setting "high priorities" and "low priorities" for deportation. The administration struggled to get agents to follow those memos, so it didn't actually remove the fear of deportation from unauthorized immigrants until the actions in November. But the House GOP wants to force DHS to take the first approach. Their amendments would prevent DHS from using any funds to enforce the memos setting deportation priorities — which means that, by default, decisions about who to deport would devolve into the hands of ICE agents on the ground.

This isn't mass deportation — and it's not exactly self-deportation, either

anti-immigrant protester go home

This woman would be disappointed to learn that the bill won't send any more people home. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty)

What's interesting about these amendments is that they would return to a world where unauthorized immigrants lived in constant fear of deportation — but they don't do much to ratchet up deportation itself. Republicans were reportedly considering some measures that would require state and local law enforcement to turn over all unauthorized immigrants in local jails to the federal government, for example, or even to allow local police to force the federal government to take any unauthorized immigrant they'd picked up. But that wasn't reflected in the bill they brought to the floor.

And while the bill maintains the current mandate for ICE to keep 34,000 beds in immigration detention facilities (while providing more money for detaining families and children coming over the US/Mexico border), it doesn't force ICE to expand detention capacity for people living in the US — nor, importantly, does it actually require those beds to be filled.

So the bill isn't exactly mass deportation. And it's not exactly "self-deportation" — the immigration agenda made famous by Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential primaries, in which the government would make life so miserable for unauthorized immigrants that they'd be induced to leave the country on their own. The constant threat of deportation is definitely an important part of the self-deportation agenda, but self-deportation goes further — to policies like mandatory E-Verify, which would (in theory) make it impossible for unauthorized workers to get jobs, or laws like Arizona's SB 1070 (now largely toothless), which would have made it a crime to be in the state without proper immigration papers.

mitt romney flag

Sorry Mitt, the House GOP isn't pushing your self-deportation line this week. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Just because this particular bill doesn't embody the self-deportation agenda doesn't mean that the GOP is rejecting it. (While members of Congress are allowed to make major changes to the law through funding bills, they often prefer not to.) But it's worth noting that immigration hardliners in the conference were extremely pleased with the position the GOP's taking in this bill — while moderates, and representatives with large Latino populations in their districts, were not. The provision to eliminate the existing DACA program for young unauthorized immigrants, in particular, passed by only 9 votes — with 26 Republicans voting to keep the program.

What it is: a return to the policy status quo of 2008

The reason it's so surprising that GOP hardliners are enthusiastic about a bill that returns unauthorized immigrants to deportation fear, but doesn't go after them itself, is that the bill the House just passed is basically the opposite of the old anti-unauthorized-immigration slogan: "Enforce the law." This bill does nothing to enforce immigration laws more stringently. It just shifts power to decide where law enforcement resources should go, from DHS headquarters to agents in the field.

bush border

Sweet Bush-era nostalgia. (Charles Ommanney/Getty)

In other words, the bill endorses the immigration-policy status quo of, say, 2008 or 2009: giving ICE the resources to deport about 400,000 unauthorized immigrants a year, without giving it much guidance about who those people ought to be.

That wasn't a status quo conservatives were terribly pleased with at the time; they were saying that government needed to "enforce the law" then, too. Furthermore, it didn't actually work to reduce the unauthorized population. "Self-deportation" theory — that maximal pressure needs to be put on unauthorized immigrants to leave the US — exists because hardliners realized that just living under the threat of deportation wasn't sufficient to getting immigrants to go home.

That doesn't mean the threat of deportation isn't a serious thing. To the contrary, it's crippled the lives of millions of people for decades. This has been thrown into relief by the young immigrants in the DACA program: their accounts of how their lives have changed since getting protected from deportation make it clear how much fear can infect a life. House Republicans are definitely proposing a policy that would make millions of people much more afraid, and much less able to contribute to their communities. But they're not — at least not yet — willing to cause more people to actually get deported, themselves.