New Talent For House Immigration Reform Effort?
December 05, 2013

Predictions of the death of immigration reform abound. The Senate reform proposal was pronounced DOA in the House of Representatives, and the House itself has done little to push forward its own bits and pieces reform ideas. 

Meanwhile, the White House is overwhelmed with Obamacare misstarts. It appears to many that the momentum for radical reform of the nation’s immigration system has withered and died.

But earlier this week there was, perhaps, a sign that the nearly dead immigration reform may have one last gasp of breath. House Speaker John Boehner, long a vocal opponent of many key issues in the Senate bill, hired a new staffer to take charge of immigration issues. 

She is Rebecca Tallent, former chief of staff to Arizona Republican John McCain, and she brings to her new job years of experience on immigration issues. She joins the Speaker’s staff after a stint as the director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Immigration Taskforce.

What does this mean for reform? Boehner has made clear his opposition to key elements of the Senate’s proposed reform bill, especially measures that would promise eventual citizenship to many immigrants in this country without papers – the so-called “path to citizenship.”  He has steadfastly refused to consider the Senate proposal and has promised that the House will tackle reform in a piecemeal fashion. 

The hire of Tallent for a position in Boehner’s office could mean the Speaker is holding true to his promise of actually taking on immigration reform. As the National Journal opined:

She wouldn't be coming to Boehner's office if House Republicans weren't serious about doing something on the issue.

 And Boehner’s own spokesman, Michael Steel, confirmed this:

The Speaker remains hopeful that we can enact step-by-step, common-sense immigration reforms—the kind of reforms the American people understand and support. Becky Tallent, a well-known expert in this field of public policy, is a great addition to our team and that effort.

Washington policy strategists saw the appointment as evidence that Boehner is perhaps now willing to find solutions to the immigration reform mess, and has hired Tallent as an experienced bridge-builder. Under much pressure to come up with legislation, Boehner has been long on promises, but short on details. The Bipartisan Policy Center quotes Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist, saying Tallent is exactly what Boehner needs: 

I think he's been hesitant to provide specifics because he doesn't have them yet. That's why you hire Becky Tallent.

In fact, in an editorial written for the Christian Science Monitor in November, Tallent herself laid out a roadmap for reform, claiming that, despite setbacks, there was still an opportunity in this Congress.

She says advocates for reform grossly mis-read the political realities in Washington, believing that the political momentum for reform, and the much publicized failures of Republicans to win over Latino voters, would compel House Republicans to follow the Senate’s lead in supporting a massive reform proposal. 

Wrong, she argues:  the House has become increasing conservative and unwilling to support “big government” legislative proposals, such as the immigration reform proposal that emerged from the “Gang of Eight” in the Senate earlier this year. 

The assumption that political pressure to win over Latinos would be so overwhelming that the House would have no choice but to move the Senate bill didn’t account for the political reality of newly redrawn voting districts.

There are compelling reasons to move reform forward, however, as she sees a bipartisan consensus on key issues including the need to secure the border, provide immigrants legal ways to enter the country, and the need to deal with the status of millions of undocumented people already in the U.S.  But advocates need to make the case:

The fact is that the only way immigration reform will happen with this Congress is if members who represent districts that may otherwise seem unlikely to be affected by reform are sold on its merits. If advocates and constituents can do that effectively and with a sense of urgency, there is still a chance for reform before the 2014 elections.  

So while advocates were pleased with Boehner’s appointment, opponents were not.  When Tallent worked for John McCain, she was instrumental in drafting 2006 and 2007 reform bills, both of which failed, and both of which provided a pathway to legalization for some undocumented immigrants. The Federation for Immigration Reform saw in Tallent’s hire cause for concern. In an email blast on Tuesday they wrote:

President Obama and Senate leaders have already said that they do not care what bill serves as the vehicle to get them to their desired objective of amnesty and massive immigration increases, just as long as they get there.  It is clear, as a result of Tuesday's announcement by Boehner, that the legislative vehicle will be different, but the destination will be the same.

And this Fox News headline said it all:

“Boehner Accused of Tilting Toward Amnesty With New Hire.”