Public Forum: The Path to Citizenship & Congressional Politics- How to Navigate the Debate


As debates on December’s topic get underway, PFers are faced with a unique challenge: discussing an issue that is currently experiencing ongoing tumult and uncertainty in Congress. How should the day-to-day controversy with the House of Representatives affect the types of arguments you are making? Today, we’ll address this question.


As you should already know if you’ve done your background research, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill last June, but the House of Representatives is dragging its feet. The primary stumbling block is something called the Hastert Rule, also called the “majority of the majority rule,” which allows Speaker Boehner to prevent an up-or-down vote on a bill until there is support from the majority of members of the majority party. The Republican caucus, who control the House, has two main factions: the establishment, and the more-conservative Tea Party. Although many members of the establishment wing of the GOP favor immigration reform, the majority of Tea Partiers do not. Complicating the problem is the number of establishment Republicans who fear losing their seats to primary challengers from the farther-right. As a result, Speaker Boehner has so far chosen to protect his Republican caucus by preventing the Senate’s immigration reform bill from reaching a vote in the House. In fact, he has blatantly stated that the House GOP has “no intention ever of going to conference on the Senate bill.”


The most controversial portion of the Senate’s immigration reform bill is its inclusion of a path to citizenship provision. Conservatives typically see the path to citizenship as rewarding lawbreakers, increasing future illegal immigration, and compromising national security. Because of this, many Republicans (especially within the Tea Party wing) consider the path to citizenship a non-starter. Any immigration reform legislation, they say, ought to be piecemeal and focus on border security.


Despite all of that, there has been some recent movement in the House signaling they might be getting serious about acting. This week, Speaker Boehner’s office hired a prominent new staffer to take the lead on immigration reform. The American public overwhelmingly supports some kind of action on immigration reform, and Speaker Boehner has been quoted as saying the issue is “absolutely not” dead. So, it seems plausible that we might see some momentum on the issue before the 113th Congress adjourns for the year.


What does all of this mean for PF debaters?


It means politics will be a very real part of your December debates.



Pay attention to Capitol Hill!


This raises an inevitable theoretical problem: can con teams win debates by simply claiming the path to citizenship is politically impossible? In short, no.


Arguing that the con should receive an easy win because of congressional gridlock is a poor strategy. Not only does it create an unfair division of ground that makes debates essentially impossible for the pro side, it also fundamentally misconstrues the major question of the topic.


It is critical for you to understand that the path to citizenship is one approach to immigration reform, but not the only one. Other ideas include increasing border security, expanding the number of available visas, granting undocumented immigrants legal status without granting them citizenship, and plenty of others. This topic asks the pro team to win that including a path to citizenship provision in an immigration reform package is desirable. Any other form of reform (without a pathway) can be understood as possible con ground.


December’s resolution states “Immigration reform should include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.” The key word here is “should.” The word “should” invites debaters to consider whether or not inclusion of a path to citizenship would be comparatively advantageous to either the status quo or a different method of immigration reform (one that excludes the path to citizenship). The question, then, is “is including a pathway to citizenship desirable?” NOT “is it possible with our current system?”


However, this does not mean discussions of the inner-workings of the congressional political machine are irrelevant. Far from it. It is crucial, though, that debaters take a more nuanced approach to this part of the topic.


A smart con strategy about politics would be to claim that:

1. The House will act on immigration reform, but only if the bill excludes a path to citizenship.

2. Insistence on including a path to citizenship measure derails other efforts and ensures that nothing at all gets done on immigration reform.

3. Passing some form of immigration reform (without the path to citizenship) is good—provide specific examples of ways other types of reforms would help immigrants or America as a whole.


This type of argument also functions as defense against pro team impacts, because you can claim that they can’t access solvency, since the Hastert Rule means the House can continue to defer action on any form of immigration reform for as long as they want. This is a more sophisticated way of making the argument, because it is premised in questions of “should?” rather than “will?” and thus does not completely remove all pro ground. Instead, it allows pro teams to make answers grounded in one of two arguments:

1. Boehner and the GOP will cave on the path to citizenship, or

2. Immigration reform without the path to citizenship is bad or insufficient


Of course, many pro teams will answer these sorts of arguments by asserting that they only have to win that the path to citizenship is a good idea in a vacuum, and that its political feasibility should be irrelevant. Since there is no formal conceptualization of “fiat” in PF, this issue is open for debate… which is exactly how a debate should be!


If you want to structure your con case this way, you will also want to set up some theoretical points about why it is important for debate to be real-world and engage the existing political structure. This will help you hedge against pro arguments that debates should stay focused on outcomes instead of politics. Again, expect to have to focus some of your time on justifying this interpretation of debate.


Con teams could also choose to punt on the issue of whether or not a path to citizenship could pass in the House, and instead draw politics-based impacts from different political ramifications. For example, you could say that Republicans would be angered by a loss on immigration reform and would retaliate by blocking some other legislation. Then, you explain why that other bill is more important. Or, you could discuss how passage of a path to citizenship would affect the upcoming midterm elections. If you want to tackle one of these strategies, you will need to do some independent research. You might also benefit from chatting with your friends in CX about how they handle politics disadvantages.


How you leverage arguments about the current congressional landscape is totally up to you. The important thing is recognizing how these ongoing controversies interact with potential in-round argumentation.


For more analysis of December’s topic, check out our pro and con strategy guides and free evidence!


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6 Responses to Public Forum: The Path to Citizenship & Congressional Politics- How to Navigate the Debate

  1. Lucia says:

    I am a PF debater and I have found this amazing debate website. THANKS SO MUCH!!!
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  2. Cole O'Brien says:

    I just thought I would leave a comment in gratitude of this post. It offers a whole new original contention to add to the December case that is all too likely to be caught up in morality and economy arguments. I got to semifinals this last weekend with this con case and am prepping it again for this weekend’s tournament.

    • Rachel Stevens says:

      I’m happy to hear you found this post useful, Cole! And CONGRATULATIONS on the excellent performance last weekend! 🙂

  3. Darrel says:

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