The House GOP’s Immigration Principles: A Good Start, But Can They Get Past The Tea Party?
Immigration reform has been stalled in the House of Representatives since the day that the Senate passed its version of comprehensive immigration reform in no small part because there has been a rather obvious an open conflict over the issue between various wings of the Republican Party. On one side, you have a group that consists of moderate Republicans, more mainline traditional conservatives, the business community, and even many religious groups who said publicly all year that they support the idea of reforming the nation’s immigration laws and dealing with issues such as the children of people here illegally as well as the overall issue of how to deal with the 11 to 12 million people here illegally, many of whom have been here for decades. On the other side, there are the hard core conservatives and Tea Party members who oppose anything that smells like what they call “amnesty” and who believe either that the only immigration reform necessary is increased border security and deportation, or at least that no other form of reform should be allowed to go into effect until the border, specifically the southern border of course, is “secure,” whatever that means. Overriding the entire discussion, of course, is the fact that the GOP has seen itself fall to new lows among Latino voters in election after election over the past eight years, and that the party’s position on immigration-related issues is cited by Latinos as the primary reason for that decline, a fact pointed out repeatedly after the 2012 election by both former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a sponsor of the Senate bill.
It’s against this backdrop that, yesterday, the House GOP leadership came out with a set of principles regarding immigration reform that, while not perfect, at least seem to advance the debate further in that body than many thought possible:
Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio released his long-awaited immigration overhaul principles Thursday afternoon, for the first time laying out a broad GOP-backed pathway to legalized status for undocumented immigrants.
Boehner and other top Republicans have been talking about it for months, but the document lays out a draft for how Republicans want to take on the contentious issue, which is splitting their party at their annual retreat here. The party will discuss and potentially amend the document, and it is possible that it will not be accepted at all.
The principles stress interior and border enforcement must be enacted before mechanisms to legalization can begin and notes that Republicans do not favor a “special pathway” to citizenship for anyone who illegally traversed the border into the United States. However, it does present options for those roughly 11 million immigrants living in the country.
“These persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S., but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits),” the document states. “Criminal aliens, gang members, and sex offenders and those who do not meet the above requirements will not be eligible for this program.”
The plan also includes measures that would address visas, employment verification, changes to the current legal immigration system and provide “an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children through no fault of their own.”
A GOP aide contrasted this piece-by-piece style with the Senate’s immigration bill, which was more than 1,200 pages long, and emphasized that leaders intend to make sure members and constituents understand each step of the immigration process before moving on to the next principle.
Boehner himself made the pitch to his conference to act, according to a source in the room.
“It’s important to act on immigration reform because we’re focused on jobs and economic growth, and this about jobs and growth,” he told his flock. “Reform is also about our national security. The safety and security of our nation depends on our ability to secure our border, enforce our laws, improve channels for legal entry to the country, and identify who is here illegally.”
Allahpundit has the text of the principles:
Standards for Immigration Reform
Our nation’s immigration system is broken and our laws are not being enforced. Washington’s failure to fix them is hurting our economy and jeopardizing our national security. The overriding purpose of our immigration system is to promote and further America’s national interests and that is not the case today. The serious problems in our immigration system must be solved, and we are committed to working in a bipartisan manner to solve them. But they cannot be solved with a single, massive piece of legislation that few have read and even fewer understand, and therefore, we will not go to a conference with the Senate’s immigration bill. The problems in our immigration system must be solved through a step-by-step, common-sense approach that starts with securing our country’s borders, enforcing our laws, and implementing robust enforcement measures. These are the principals guiding us in that effort.
Border Security and Interior Enforcement Must Come First
It is the fundamental duty of any government to secure its borders, and the United States is failing in this mission. We must secure our borders now and verify that they are secure. In addition, we must ensure now that when immigration reform is enacted, there will be a zero tolerance policy for those who cross the border illegally or overstay their visas in the future. Faced with a consistent pattern of administrations of both parties only selectively enforcing our nation’s immigration laws, we must enact reform that ensures that a President cannot unilaterally stop immigration enforcement.
Implement Entry-Exit Visa Tracking System
A fully functioning Entry-Exit system has been mandated by eight separate statutes over the last 17 years. At least three of these laws call for this system to be biometric, using technology to verify identity and prevent fraud. We must implement this system so we can identify and track down visitors who abuse our laws.
Employment Verification and Workplace Enforcement
In the 21st century it is unacceptable that the majority of employees have their work eligibility verified through a paper based system wrought with fraud. It is past time for this country to fully implement a workable electronic employment verification system.
Reforms to the Legal Immigration System
For far too long, the United States has emphasized extended family members and pure luck over employment-based immigration. This is inconsistent with nearly every other developed country. Every year thousands of foreign nationals pursue degrees at America’s colleges and universities, particularly in high skilled fields. Many of them want to use their expertise in U.S. industries that will spur economic growth and create jobs for Americans. When visas aren’t available, we end up exporting this labor and ingenuity to other countries. Visa and green card allocations need to reflect the needs of employers and the desire for these exceptional individuals to help grow our economy.
The goal of any temporary worker program should be to address the economic needs of the country and to strengthen our national security by allowing for realistic, enforceable, usable, legal paths for entry into the United States. Of particular concern are the needs of the agricultural industry, among others. It is imperative that these temporary workers are able to meet the economic needs of the country and do not displace or disadvantage American workers.
One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children through no fault of their own, those who know no other place as home. For those who meet certain eligibility standards, and serve honorably in our military or attain a college degree, we will do just that.
Individuals Living Outside the Rule of Law
Our national and economic security depend on requiring people who are living and working here illegally to come forward and get right with the law. There will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws – that would be unfair to those immigrants who have played by the rules and harmful to promoting the rule of law. Rather, these persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S., but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits). Criminal aliens, gang members, and sex offenders and those who do not meet the above requirements will not be eligible for this program. Finally, none of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced.
These principles have yet to be crafted into legislation, of course, and that legislation has yet to even be considered by a House Committee, not to mention voted on in the House, so it may be premature to discuss this proposal in detail. However, the principles themselves at least seem to be a step in the right direction. Although not noted in the portion excerpted above, the principles would provide a mechanism for so-called “Dreamers” — adults of a certain age who were brought to the United States by their parents when they were children — to obtain legal status and eventual citizenship provided that they do not have violent criminal records. With regard to those who don’t qualify for those benefits, there would at least be a mechanism for them to obtain legal status after payment of fines and passing other criteria such as demonstrating proficiency in English. There are similar provisions in the Senate bill, of course, but the House bill differs from the Senate bill in that it would not permit the vast majority of these “non-Dreamer” illegal immigrants to ever apply for citizenship. Presumably, this is meant to be a sop of some kind to the anti-”amnesty” crowd in the GOP that objects to the idea of people who are here illegally ever becoming citizens and thereby eligible to vote and obtain the other benefits of citizenship. In essence, then, the House bill would create a new group of legalized immigrants who would be legally permitted to work here and not be subject to deportation, but who would differ from other “green card” holders in that they could never apply for citizenship, even if they did something like marry an American citizen that would ordinarily allow someone to qualify for citizenship.
As I’ve noted before, there are several public policy objections to some of the ideas that are expressed in the GOP principles. Putting broader immigration reform on hold until some amorphous level of “border security” is achieved strikes me as just a way of giving the opponents of any kind of reform a veto over allowing reform to proceed at all as long as they have enough votes in Congress, for example. Additionally, the idea of creating an entire class of non-citizen resident aliens who would be ineligible for citizenship is, as Columbia University Professor Mae M. Ngai notes in today’s New York Times, dangerously close to repeating the kind of race and ethnicity based exclusion policies that dominated American immigration law in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. While I can understand the idea that people who came here illegally should have to “go to the back of the line” in the citizenship lottery so that they don’t unfairly receive advantages over those who immigrated here legally and followed the rules scrupulously, there doesn’t seem to me to be any rational or logical reason why they shouldn’t eventually be allowed to apply for citizenship after spending some probationary time in resident alien status, paying appropriate fines and back taxes, and otherwise providing evidence that they deserve to eventually gain the benefits of citizenship.
That said, these principles strike me as being a good starting point for a House GOP that needs to carefully navigate the various political winds in its caucus in order to even see a bill on this issue make it to the floor. Indeed, there’s plenty in these principles that the anti “amnesty” crowd ought to like. Not surprisingly, though, even just the discussion of reform of the nation’s immigration laws is causing controversy on the right:
The House Republican leadership’s call on Thursday to provide legal status for 11 million undocumented workers, and possible citizenship for those brought to this country as children, caused sharp division within the party even as it provided a starting point for negotiations with Democrats on overhauling the nation’s immigration system.
Many Republicans rejected the one-page “standards for immigration reform” outright, and others said now was not the time for a legislative push on a number of contentious issues in an election year with trends going their way. Even their leader was cautious about where the issue will go from here.
A closed-door discussion on immigration at the retreat was described by a House member as “very passionate,” with a “sizable bloc” opposing the leadership’s position. Members took turns expressing their distrust of President Obama and Senate Democrats as negotiating partners, and many of the Republicans said they were torn over whether to turn the principles into an actual legislative effort.
Conservative voices from the Heritage Foundation to William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, quickly denounced the proposal.
Other members looked for middle ground. Representative Patrick T. McHenry, Republican of North Carolina, said his party should unify around principles for reform, but he and others expressed grave doubts that the House could or should go further. “Unifying behind principles would be a very useful thing,” Mr. McHenry said. As for legislation, he added, “It’s very debatable about whether we do it now or later.”
Others weighing in on the leadership proposal include Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who proclaimed that the House GOP’s proposal threatens the party’s chances to retake the Senate in 2014. The conservative blogosphere seems to be reacting in much the same manner, if this piece by John Hinderaker is any indication:
The document concludes with a reference to “our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced.” Really? Why “from here on”? This is a bad joke: this time, we really mean it! How about if instead, we start enforcing the laws we already have on the books, right now? No, the Republicans admit, that can’t be done. (“Our nation’s immigration system is broken and our laws are not being enforced.”) We have at least a 40-year history of our immigration laws not being enforced by Washington-or, rather, being selectively enforced so as to please favored special interests. Does anyone seriously believe that will change, going forward? No. President Obama has openly declared that he will enforce only those portions of immigration law that he and Eric Holder happen to agree with, in violation of his most basic constitutional duty. How dumb do these people think we are?
That is about as much energy as it is worthwhile to expend on today’s “standards.” The rubber will meet the road in the details of the legislation that is going to be written. In the meantime, I think everyone has a pretty good idea what is coming.
I’ve seen worse reaction from people on the right via Facebook and Twitter, so I think we can expect that the hard-right/Tea Party, which are essentially interchangeable terms at this point, to oppose whatever it is that the House leadership comes up with in terms of legislation, if they even end up doing so. At that point, the question will be whether Boehner, Cantor, et al will try to push the bill through notwithstanding the opposition of a substantial part of their own caucus.