Immigration reform may happen—one rule at a time

Family members reunite through bars and mesh of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in San Diego.
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Sweeping immigration reform is dead, but it may still go through Congress in bits and pieces.

The Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill in June with bipartisan support, but House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, all but declared it dead earlier this month, saying, "We have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill."

Since then, Boehner has said that he wants to deal with reform "step by step," and President Barack Obama said this week that he is willing to take a piecemeal approach. Regardless, if anything's to get done on immigration, it will almost certainly be on a much smaller scale than the 1,300-page law the Senate proposed.

"I think it has to be done in a piecemeal manner," said Greg Berk, an immigration attorney and partner at Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger.

"The White House and Democrats want a comprehensive solution for the 11 million undocumented workers and a path to citizenship," he said. "But Republicans don't favor an automatic path and are focused more on enforcement."

As late as Wednesday, the president seemed to be on board with a slower path, telling reporters that he would accept a piecemeal approach—as long as Congress passed all the pieces.

Berk says the two sides agree on one of the components: the E-Verify program, which lets employers check on a worker's eligibility status.

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Started in 1997, the program is not mandatory now except for companies with federal contracts and is used only to check new hires.

Berk suggested that E-Verify be required for all companies—a step that both Democrats and Republicans support—and for all workers.

"This could be done in a couple of weeks if the Senate agreed to set aside a comprehensive approach for now," he said. "E-Verify is the centerpiece of any immigration reform, and without it we can never get a handle on illegal immigration."

Immigration reform will grow economy: Labor secretary

That comprehensive reform stalled after the high hopes of earlier this year is not too surprising, said Jamie Longazel, a professor of sociology at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

"Like health care, immigration is a complicated issue," he said. "There are lots of details to work out."

Longazel said politics played a big part in slowing reform to a crawl.

"Some of the tea party conservatives in the Republican party are appeasing their constituents who don't want reform," he said. "I think the mainstream part of the party wants reform, but some Republicans are sticking to ideology."

Not even the business community, which has come out for major reform as a boon to the economy, is able to sway some House Republicans.

The Congressional Budget Office issued a report this summer on the effects of the Senate reform bill. The report estimated that it would increase government spending by $260 billion over 10 years—for health care, social services and border enforcement—but that revenues would amount to $460 billion over the same period. That would come in the form of things such as workers' income, and taxes on payrolls and income.

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The CBO also estimated that real GDP would grow by 3.3 percent over current projections in 2023 and by 5.4 percent over current projections in 2033.

"Many people in the GOP and business community know reform is good for the economy and are very positive on the Senate bill," said Geoffrey Hoffman, a professor of law and director of the immigration clinic at the University of Houston. "But an intransigent faction is doing something to stop reform for political reasons."

Can immigration reform pass the House?

Efforts to achieve comprehensive immigration reform (which would be the first in nearly 30 years) are still alive, despite a lower media profile, according to Longazel at the University of Dayton.

"The grassroots movement is still there," he said. "I hear of efforts in Washington all the time. It's just with the news about the government shutdown and health care, it seems like it's disappeared."

Recent polls show that most Americans—including a majority of Republican voters—approve of a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.

For many Republicans, the issue of enforcement remains at the forefront. In June, the House Judiciary Committee passed the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act. Among other provisions, the act would make it a federal crime for undocumented workers to be in the United States. That is currently a civil offense that calls for violators to be deported.

Illegal immigration on the rise again

Meanwhile, the number of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. is climbing again after a few years of decline.

Border Patrol agents stopped 388,422 people trying to enter the country without documents in the 11 months through August, versus 364,768 during the same period in 2012.

The number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. rose from 11.3 million in 2009 to 11.7 million last year, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project.

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In the end, analysts say, some type of reform will likely get done, just not in the comprehensive way that many had hoped for.

"Boehner has left the door open a bit on reform," said Hoffman at the University of Houston. "I'm not as pessimistic as others might be."

Berk, the immigration lawyer, said, "I do believe the majority of immigration reform will happen. But it will be over time and in pieces."

—By CNBC's Mark Koba. Follow him on Twitter @MarkKobaCNBC