Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa
Photo by Ryan J. Reilly/Flickr

As Republicans assumed control of the House last week, immigration advocates and Democrats are bracing for what could be a painful two years, with looming battles in the courts, statehouses and on the Hill.

President Obama has said he’s committed to an immigration law overhaul and supports another push in 2011 at the recently defeated Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act. But no news from the new Congress would be good news, some advocates say.

Fending off depression after the failed DREAM Act — the decade-old legislation that would give certain eligible young illegal immigrants a potential pathway to citizenship — died in the lame-duck session, the left is trying to re-group for a Republican volley of inquiries and legislation.

“We’re going to be dodging bullets,” said Melissa Crow, a former senior policy adviser in the Obama administration’s Homeland Security Department who now directs the Legal Action Center at the American Immigration Council.

The barrage has already begun. As the new Congress opened Wednesday, conservative state lawmakers unveiled model legislation to undermine birthright citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants that they said would be introduced in at least 14 states. And Rep. Steve King, R-IA, late Wednesday introduced a similar bill, HR140, which would impose limitations on automatic citizenship for those born in this country.

House Republican leaders, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and Homeland Security Chairman Peter King, have repeatedly signaled a harder line on immigration enforcement and pledged to begin a series of oversight hearings on how the Obama administration has enforced immigrations laws, among other issues.

Other issues on the legislative calendar in Washington include efforts to expand mandatory verification of workers’ immigration status and other enforcement tools. State legislators in at least six states say they will introduce laws that mirror Arizona’s SB 1070, which requires police in that state to check the immigration papers of people they come in contact with. And Crow and others are preparing for more potential lawsuits battling such laws and government inaction on policy changes.

While there’s been little movement on immigration in Congress, the Obama administration claimed a record number of deportations last year, touting nearly 400,000 removals, with a goal of 404,000 this fiscal year. Meanwhile, the number of undocumented immigrants caught last fiscal year by the U.S. Border Patrol while trying to sneak into the country dropped below 500,000, the lowest amount in decades.

“Republicans will never declare the border secure while a Democrat is in the White House,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, which advocates for immigration reform.

The Republican gamble is whether the GOP stands to gain from stricter laws passed before the 2012 election, or if a tougher stance could cause a backlash — and a bigger voter turnout — among Latinos.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank that espouses immigration restrictions, pointed out that House Speaker John Boehner hasn’t said much about what tack he’ll take on immigration.

“The question for House leadership is whether they’ll pass bills that will not be signed into law to use as political cudgels for the 2012 campaign, or if they should come up with something that could get passed (by Congress),” Krikorian said. “One thing I expect (Democrats) are hoping for is Republicans overplay their hand.”

Expectations are low for immigration legislation to become enacted, but it’s not impossible, he said. Possibilities include working with the Senate on a bill requiring all employers to verify a worker’s employment eligibility paired with a stripped down DREAM Act. As far as the Democrats’ position, Krikorian sees them playing defense in the foreseeable future.

Wary of appearing resigned to defeat, a chorus of immigration advocates, human rights activists and other civil rights groups responded to King’s birthright citizenship bill and the like-minded state legislation with their own flurry of press conferences and messages. Opponents say that the model state legislation, which would allow states to issue special birth certificates to denote citizenship status, could lead to discrimination.

“Equal protection under law is a cornerstone of U.S. and international law,” Alison Parker, U.S. program director at Human Right Watch, said in a statement. “States should reject this proposal as abhorrent to U.S. values.”

Joanne Lin, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, says that the House Judiciary Committee has the votes to pass its immigration enforcement priorities, but that doesn’t mean legislation that makes it out of committee will be taken up on the House floor.

“If two years from now there is no further damage done during this congressional session in the area of immigration enforcement policies and practices,” Lin said, “that would be a victory.”

Andrew Becker is a staff reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio.

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Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.