Seung Min Kim
March 9, 2014
Nancy Pelosi is harnessing the same level of energy to push immigration reform that she brought to her biggest legislative achievement when she ran the House: the health care overhaul.
The California Democrat does not wield the speaker’s gavel anymore, but she’s hitting the road to bring attention to immigration, which she calls her top legislative priority. In recent weeks, she’s pitched an overhaul to audiences from Miami to Los Angeles to Laredo, Texas.
The Pelosi immigration road show is unfolding as the issue remains on the back burner in the Republican-controlled House.
Democrats on and off Capitol Hill are frustrated that legislation has stalled and divided over the best way forward. But in an interview this week from her Capitol office, Pelosi said Democrats need to stay focused on a policy goal that she sees as more important than regaining control of the House.
“It’s the biggest thing that we can do, and that’s why I’ve said to the speaker, to the press, to these groups, I would rather pass [a] comprehensive immigration reform bill than win the elections in November,” Pelosi said during the 30-minute interview. “There’s nothing we could accomplish in winning that would be as big as passing immigration reform.”
Immigration reform is also an issue that energizes key Democratic constituencies that could help the party turn out its base in a difficult midterm year.
But the political dynamics in Pelosi’s own party can be complicated. In recent weeks, immigration reform advocates have leveled increasing pressure on President Barack Obama to do more to stem the rising number of deportations under his administration.
She endorses a recommendation from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that calls on the administration to shield immigrants here illegally from being removed from the United States if they would qualify for legalization under the Gang of Eight bill that passed the Senate last summer.
That CHC proposal, Pelosi said, “makes all the sense in the world,” adding that the notion that the administration doesn’t have some prosecutorial discretion on deportations is “ridiculous.”
“I believe that if status is the violation, then that should not be even in the scheme of things as to whether somebody would be deported or else you would be deporting 11 million people, which doesn’t make any sense,” Pelosi said. “I think that the approach that the Hispanic caucus is taking is exactly right.”
But she also argues that immigration activists shouldn’t train all of their fire on Obama, saying that lets Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders “off the hook” for failing to bring immigration legislation to the floor. House Republican leadership released a one-page list of principles earlier this year, but the push on immigration was later largely scuttled as the GOP said its distrust of Obama is a major impediment to an overhaul.
Boehner “puts his principles out there, we salute the principles, he takes it to his caucus, runs it up the flagpole, they not only don’t salute, they chop down the flagpole,” Pelosi said.
Republicans — even those who are open to immigration reform — say Pelosi is a key reason nothing is happening. She made her concerns known last year when it appeared the House bipartisan immigration group went beyond negotiating a bill and moved into talks about the health care law. Critics also note that Pelosi did not bring up a comprehensive overhaul when Democrats controlled the House and maintained a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in Obama’s first term, though she did pass the Dream Act that would legalize young undocumented immigrants — a measure that was blocked in the Senate.
“One of the most important obstacles, one of the biggest obstacles, one of the most effective obstacles against immigration reform has been Nancy Pelosi,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who for several years was in the secret House immigration group that disintegrated last year.
In a recent interview, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) acknowledged some “rocky” times between him and Pelosi during the House negotiations, but he said the two lawmakers “never lost respect for one another,” even during the most heated moments. Now, Gutierrez says he and the House’s top Democrat are “on the same page” on immigration.