The “Gang of 5” Who Could Kill Immigration Reform

Demographic realities, business and labor interests and politics have once again aligned to open up opportunities for the passage of a comprehensive immigration bill but the path through Congress remains lined with obstacles.

Last week, the Senate’s “Gang of 8” bill, survived the amendment process, passed out of the Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support, and is set to receive full Senate consideration when Congress reconvenes in June. All signs indicate that it is also likely to pass the chamber with bipartisan support. The bill’s fate in the House is far less certain.  Any immigration bill passed in the lower chamber will have to first sail through a number of crucial veto points manned by conservative legislators who have been less than welcoming to immigrants in the past, particularly House leadership and the chairpersons of the House Judiciary Committee and Immigration Subcommittee.

Representative John Boehner, arguably the House’s most powerful member, can single-handedly decide the fate of Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR), and he faces few electoral pressures to pass a bill favored by Senate Democrats or the President. Both Boehner’s district demographics and past votes indicate a likely no vote for any CIR bill with a path to citizenship.  His district, Ohio’s 8th, is not only overwhelmingly white (87%) with only 34,500 Asians and Latino (5% of the total population), but is very conservative with a Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) of R+14.

In addition, Boehner’s past votes on immigration measures indicate a moderately restrictive stance towards immigration.  From a vote to declare English the official language of the United States in 1999 to building a fence along the entire Mexican border in 2006, Boehner has received a B rating from NumbersUSA, a leading anti-immigrant interest group, for his fairly consistent anti-immigrant stances.

Representative Eric Cantor, the Republican Congressman from Virginia, House Majority Leader, and second most powerful member in the House, will also have considerable sway over CIR legislation.  Despite Cantor’s recent high-profile comments supporting a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, both his district’s demographics and past voting record on immigration measures, like Boehner’s, predict his opposition to a Democratic backed bill with a robust pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Representative Cantor’s district, Virginia’s 7th, offers no electoral incentives to vote for a liberal CIR bill.  The district has a very conservative PVI of R+11, and is majority white (74%) with a combined Asian and Hispanic population of just about 65,000 (9% of the total population), hardly a large enough voting bloc to threaten Cantor’s incumbency in future elections.

Like Boehner, Representative Cantor’s past votes indicate a moderately anti-immigrant stance, earning him a B from NumbersUSA for his efforts to “reduce chain migration,” “reduce illegal jobs and presence,” “reduce visa lotteries,” and “reduce illegal immigration at the borders.”

Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Whip from California and third-most powerful member of the House, is tasked with pursuing votes for leadership supported legislation and will also have considerable sway over the House CIR bill.

McCarthy’s district, California’s 23rd, is actually quite diverse with 36,500 (5%) Asian Americans and over 250,000 (35.5%) Hispanics but is extremely conservative with a PVI of R+18. McCarthy has secured an A- rating from NumbersUSA for his strong anti-amnesty stances and focus on strong border security.  As with other House Leaders, McCarthy is unlikely to vote for a bill with a path to citizenship.

Finally, two additional players — Rep. Goodlatte, the Chairman of the House Judiciary and Rep. Trey Gowdy, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security—have outsized influence on the fate of CIR.  The latter is tasked with drafting all legislation with jurisdiction over all immigration matters; and the former chairs the committee that will have the final vote on the legislative language.  The support of both Goodlatte and Gowdy will be absolutely necessary for the bill’s passage out of committee to the House floor for a vote.

Both Goodlatte and Gowdy represent conservative districts (R+12 and R+15 respectively) with small minority populations (6% and 9% combined Asian American and Latino populations in each of their districts) and have strong anti-immigrant voting records with Goodlatte receiving the highest rating, an A+ from NumbersUSA, and Gowdy an A-.

Dr. Tom Wong’s modeling of member votes for CIR in the House, based on district demographics and over 10,000 roll call votes of immigrant-related legislation, also predicts that Reps. Boehner, Cantor, McCarthy, Goodlatte, and Gowdy will all vote no on even a pared-back bill without a pathway to citizenship beyond naturalization for DREAMers.

True, the politics of immigration have shifted drastically after the 2012 election. There is indeed strong momentum behind reform. But district-level demographics and past votes will mean an uphill battle in the House.


Sayu Bhojwani (@sayubhojwani) is the Founding Director of The New American Leaders Project . She has worked on immigrant integration in various capacities for more than 15 years.

Tyler Reny (@tylerreny) is the Program and Research Associate at The New American Leaders Project and will be starting his doctorate in political science at the University of Washington in the fall.