By Erin Kelly
July 4, 2016
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have both vowed to take quick action on immigration as president, but Congress is poised to disappoint whomever wins the White House.
"The candidates are raising expectations that something will finally happen on immigration," said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. "Then after one of them is elected, they'll turn to Congress and reality will hit."
Unless one political party unexpectedly wins a sweeping majority in both the House and Senate, Congress will remain deadlocked on the politically divisive issue, analysts say. Lawmakers have largely avoided major immigration legislation for the past three years.
"You'll have a president who is trying to make some dramatic changes, but it seems unlikely that Congress will cooperate," said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science and Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine.
Clinton has pledged that she will send legislation to Congress within her first 100 days in office to offer a pathway to citizenship for many of the 12 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. and end deportation policies that split up families.
Trump has promised to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, triple the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, increase deportations, and stop granting automatic citizenship to anyone born in the U.S.
If Clinton becomes president and Democrats win control of the Senate, it's possible that senators could pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill similar to the one they approved in 2013. That would require a rare bipartisan effort since neither party is expected to have the 60-vote supermajority needed to pass most legislation in the Senate. Even if a bill passes, it would likely be stopped in the House, which is expected to remain under GOP control.
Another Republican-led House would help Trump, but he would run into problems in the Senate, even if Republicans retain a slim majority there. The minority party has enormous power to block bills in the Senate.
"Major change on immigration is not going to happen," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.
The result, analysts predict, is that the next president will likely steal a page from President Obama's playbook and take executive action to carry out at least some of his or her immigration goals.
Clinton has already said that, if Congress doesn't act, she will take action to prevent the deportation of undocumented immigrants brought here as children, their parents, and "others with a history of service and contribution to their communities."
Obama took action in 2012 to give temporary protection from deportation to many undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. In 2014, he expanded that program to protect more of those young immigrants and their parents — a move that would allow about 5 million undocumented immigrants to stay and work legally in the U.S.
Those 2014 programs were effectively killed on June 23 when the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 over whether Obama overreached his authority. The tie vote left intact a preliminary injunction by a lower court that stopped the programs from ever taking effect.
However, if Clinton wins and fills the vacancy on the Supreme Court, she could potentially revive and expand Obama's initiatives. On the flip side, Trump has vowed to revoke Obama's orders on his first day in office, effectively ending the legal wrangling over the programs.
Trump would still have trouble using executive power to accomplish his bigger goals, since only Congress can approve spending to hire more immigration enforcement officers and beef up border security, DeSipio said.
"Assuming that Mexico doesn't offer him a check, Trump would need appropriations from Congress to build his wall," the professor said.
But Trump could still make significant changes by reversing the Obama administration's deportation policy, which targeted undocumented immigrants with serious criminal records while allowing most others to remain. Trump could rewrite that policy to deport anyone who entered the U.S. illegally or overstayed their visas, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes most efforts to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants.
"There are a lot of things he could do immediately without Congress," he said.
The same holds true for Clinton, said Krikorian, who predicted she might take action to give temporary protected status to the flood of Central American children who have been crossing the border during the last few years to escape gang violence.
"I think Hillary could do that, and it really would be dramatic," he said, adding that his organization would oppose such a move.
Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant rights group America's Voice, said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., may find himself under the greatest pressure of all if Clinton wins and Democrats take control of the Senate and revive a bipartisan immigration reform bill.
"Then you'll have a moment of truth for Paul Ryan," Sharry said. "He's thought of as more pro-reform than many Republican leaders, but he also heads the party that nominated Trump for president. What's the House going to do? That's the big question."
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