One year ago, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and fellow members of the bipartisan Gang of Eight watched as the immigration bill they helped negotiate swept the Senate to chants of "Yes, we can!"
Now, as immigration legislation is still stalled in the House, the Republican senator puts the odds of enacting significant immigration legislation this year at "close to zero," its prospects further undermined by the flood of unaccompanied minors from Central America streaming over the southern border.
In an interview Tuesday with Capital Download, Flake urged President Obama to go before cameras to address families in Honduras, Guatemala and elsewhere who believe their children might be able to gain legal status in the USA. In 2012, the president took executive action permitting the so-called Dreamers — young people who had grown up in the USA after being brought here illegally by their parents — to work legally and get such official documents as driver's licenses.
"It would be helpful, I believe, if the president himself were to stand and say, 'If you come here, you will not be afforded any legal status; you will likely be deported,' " Flake told USA TODAY's weekly video news maker series. "That would carry a lot more weight than a directive from the secretary of Homeland Security or the vice president," who in recent days have tried to make that argument.
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The belief that their children might be able to stay in the USA — an argument sometimes made by human traffickers seeking payment to transport illegal immigrants — is "the primary driver of the traffic northward now," Flake said. The spike in unaccompanied children making the dangerous and illegal journey has taken a humanitarian toll on them and strained U.S. resources to care for them in Texas and elsewhere.
It also has hurt efforts to overhaul the nation's immigration system. "It feeds the narrative, particularly on the Republican side, that the president is unwilling to enforce the law," Flake said, "and when the president takes unilateral action without working with Congress, anything that feeds that narrative makes it more difficult to move ahead with legislation."
Another hurdle: the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Virginia primary this month after his challenger attacked him as too willing to act on immigration. Though Flake argued that immigration wasn't the key factor behind Cantor's defeat, "I do think it did spook some Republicans."
Flake, 51, bucked the Republican leadership during his five terms in the House by advocating a comprehensive immigration bill. Elected to the Senate in 2012, he was one of four Republicans who joined with four Democrats in negotiating legislation that would have provided a path to legal status for some of the millions of undocumented workers in the USA, tied to border security.
When the measure passed the Senate 68-32 a year ago Friday, Flake was optimistic. "I thought if we had a big enough vote in the Senate," the political momentum would propel it through the House. "I thought that this would do it."
It didn't. "It's tough terrain over in the House on this subject and just in general," he said.
If the GOP gains control of the Senate in November's midterm elections, Flake hopes a Republican-controlled House and Senate will be able to agree on less sweeping measures on immigration that Obama would be willing to sign. "Maybe we do it differently, more like the House wanted to do it, piecemeal," he said.
Taking action is important for policy and politics, he said, warning that otherwise Republicans risk catastrophe in the 2016 presidential election.
"It's going to be difficult to win national elections if we don't deal with this situation rationally," he said. For former Florida governor Jeb Bush, support of an immigration overhaul could complicate his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, if he decides to make one.
"I think it makes it more difficult in certain states and in certain regions perhaps," Flake said. "Having said that, I think Republicans want to win not just primaries but the general election as well. I think it makes him far more electable in a general election."
--By USA Today