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Immigration reform threatens to fracture wounded GOP

House Speaker John Boehner speaks with employees at Republic Wire in West Chester, Ohio, Feb. 13, 2014. The Republican Party’s difficulty in addressing the immigration file coherently has exasperated some activists, who say they plan to work against Republicans seeking re-election in the fall.

Cara Owsley/AP

The long campaign to reshape U.S. immigration laws has stalled as Republicans wrestle with internal divisions over an issue that could hold the key to the party's future.

Immigration reform was supposed to be the rare area where both major political parties were keen to demonstrate progress: Democrats have long promised legislative fixes but never delivered, while Republicans want to repair their standing with Hispanic voters after getting snubbed in the 2012 elections.

But recent weeks have shown that moving forward is more difficult than ever – and that no change is likely until after the mid-term elections in November or well beyond.

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Earlier this month, Republican John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, slammed the door shut on a rare opening in the immigration debate. One week after embracing a set of principles to guide negotiations, Mr. Boehner said that Republicans could no longer pursue the issue because they didn't trust Mr. Obama.

The about-face dismayed Republicans who favour reform and incensed immigration advocates. Kica Matos, who helps lead a coalition of immigrant-rights groups, said she felt a mix of anger, betrayal and bewilderment upon learning the news.

"It makes you wonder why [Republicans] are acting this way," she said. "If they don't move on reform and move on it quickly, they will be an extinct party sooner rather than later."

Activists such as Ms. Matos say their patience is exhausted. She is part of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, a coalition of groups in 30 states that says it will shift its stance toward Republicans from persuasion to punishment. It plans to target Republicans running for re-election this fall in 20 Congressional districts from California to Virginia.

For Republicans, immigration reform is a thorny problem. The GOP is deeply divided over whether to implement a path toward legal status for the estimated 11 million people who are living in the country illegally. And there is little appetite for such an internal conflict in an election year, when the party is hoping to reap gains at the ballot box by keeping the focus on Mr. Obama's health-care law.

While that calculation may avoid an intraparty schism in the short term, it poses risks for the long haul. After Mr. Boehner made his remarks during a press conference on February 6, the response from some in the Hispanic community was furious. Jorge Ramos, a well-known Spanish-language television anchor, asserted that the stalling will cost Republicans their bid to reclaim the presidency in 2016. "The immigration issue will pursue them like a ghost," he wrote recently.

The push to reform U.S. immigration laws received a boost last year when Democrats and Republicans in the Senate managed to pass a package of comprehensive reforms. The bill encompassed a host of issues including tighter border security, more visas for skilled workers, and a path toward legal status and citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

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Since then progress has been scant. The Republican-controlled House has declined to use the Senate bill as the basis for further negotiation. It has made tentative steps toward a piecemeal approach, tackling each immigration issue in separate piece of legislation, but Mr. Boehner has refused to allow votes on such bills.

The last several weeks have been especially dispiriting for those Republicans who urge the party to embrace certain reforms. The year began with an auspicious start: At the end of January, Mr. Boehner released a set of principles on immigration reform that appeared to herald a promising new phase in the debate.

"We were all doing high fives," said Carlos Gutierrez, a former commerce secretary under president George W. Bush who has pushed for immigration reform. "Everybody was optimistic."

That lasted seven days. When someone called Mr. Gutierrez with the news that Mr. Boehner had announced that it would be difficult to pursue any immigration overhaul under the current administration, his reaction was disbelief. "There are plenty of Republicans who want [immigration reform]," he said. But "there is a very vocal group who don't, or who don't want to give the President a political win, or who don't trust him."

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said some legislative progress might be possible after the primary season for selecting Republican candidates to Congress ends later in the spring, or in the months just after the November mid-term elections.

But as the delay grows, so do the political risks. "The Republican party is stuck in a rut in terms of explaining their position on immigration reform to this electorate," said Mr. Noorani. "The longer this goes on, the deeper that rut gets."

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