WASHINGTON — A year after the Senate passed a sweeping immigration bill, a leading backer in the House declared Wednesday that legislative efforts on the issue are dead.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, long one of the most bullish Democrats about the chances for action in the GOP-led House, took to the House floor to announce that he'd officially given up.
"Having been given ample time and space to craft legislation you failed," Gutierrez said, addressing House Republicans. "Your chance to play a role in how immigration and deportation policies are carried out this year is over."
Gutierrez said it's now up to President Barack Obama to take action to curb deportations, which have reached record highs on his watch.
Gutierrez's comments come days away from Friday's one-year anniversary of Senate passage of a sweeping, bipartisan bill offering eventual citizenship to many of the 11.5 million people here illegally, spending billions to beef up border security, and remaking the nation's legal immigration system to allow more workers into the country legally.
Legislation never got off the ground in the House, even though Gutierrez spent months working with Republicans trying to make it happen. House GOP leaders said repeatedly that they wanted to get it done, but opposition from a small but vocal group of conservative lawmakers seemed to derail every attempt.
Advocates say Majority Leader Eric Cantor's surprise primary defeat this month to a tea party candidate who accused him of backing "amnesty," along with the sudden crisis surrounding an unexpected surge of Central American children trying to cross the Southern border, eliminated whatever chances remained.
Now, attention will focus squarely on the White House as advocates lobby Obama to take action to limit deportations and expand a two-year-old program offering work permits to some immigrants brought here illegally as children. White House officials had signaled plans to take some initial steps later this summer, but that was before the new crisis involving unaccompanied minors at the border took center stage. Advocates fear that could delay White House plans.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama shares Gutierrez's frustration.
"We have within grasp a solution to a pretty persistent problem, and a fix to a system that just about everybody agrees is broken within reach, but we've not been able to move that across the finish line simply because of the efforts of House Republicans to obstruct," Earnest said.
Not everyone is ready to give up on legislation, at least not publicly. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said earlier Wednesday at a breakfast hosted by The Wall Street Journal that he still thinks there's hope. And appearing at the same breakfast, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that the surge of children from Central America arriving at the Southern border "argues for immigration reform, not against."
McCain also said that backing an immigration overhaul remains an imperative for the Republican Party, which is losing support from Latino and Asian voters and struggling to win presidential elections.
"I can't tell you we have a great shot at it, but I know the consequences of failure, which will motivate me to try no matter what," said McCain. McCain and Schumer were lead authors of the Senate bill.
Advocates promised to keep up their efforts, both to press Obama to act unilaterally, and to ensure that Republicans pay a political price for inaction.
"Our strategy is clear: it's hold Republicans accountable for blocking the best chance we've had for immigration reform in a generation, work to un-elect Republicans in the House even if it takes two or more election cycles, and press the president to protect as many undocumented immigrants as possible in the meantime," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a leading immigrant advocacy group.