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Soul searching on tap as House GOP mulls immigration reform

While House Republicans decamped to Cambridge, Md., for their annual retreat, the leadership distributed a draft set of principles meant to guide the conference’s discussion going forward and any legislation they might write. Now begins the battle for the rank-and-file members whose approval – and votes – will be necessary to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.

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The crux of draft is the assertion that they would support allowing immigrants who are currently here illegally to “live legally and without fear in the U.S.,” provided they meet a set of criteria such as admitting guilt, passing background checks, paying fines and back taxes, and learning English, among other things. Criminals, gang members and sex offenders would be barred, and a certain set of enforcement standards would have to be met first.

It’s a significant commitment from the Republican leadership, which has steadfastly refused to commit any principles so far aside from a promise not to take up the Senate’s massive immigration bill (a pledge repeated in the principles). It also offers the chance of a productive discussion with Democrats, who will be encouraged by the fact that the draft doesn’t explicitly bar immigrants here illegally now from ever receiving citizenship (it merely objects to a “special path” to citizenship).

“While these standards are certainly not everything we would agree with, they leave a real possibility that Democrats and Republicans, in both the House and Senate, can in some way come together and pass immigration reform that both sides can accept,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the Democrats who helped write the Senate legislation. “It is a long, hard road but the door is open.”

Because the House leadership has been silent for so long, many members of the House GOP have not had to decide what to do. And there could be more time to mull over the issue and get constituent feedback: Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., told reporters at the retreat that it could still be months before the leadership puts a bill up for a vote.

“My hunch is it doesn’t come up tomorrow. It’s probably months out, I don’t know. But the point would be most of the primaries would’ve faded by then, anyway. By the time you get to June, most of them are behind you,” he said, referring to the congressional midterm primary elections.

Time might make the issue easier. As Republican strategist and former congressional aide John Feehery told recently, “The timing on this is very important. “What was stupid to do becomes smart to do a little bit later in the year.”

If the leadership wants to nudge the party toward backing legalization, there will be plenty of forces working against them. The chief antagonist of an immigration policy that allows for a widespread legalization and more guest workers is Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who prepared a 30-page memo for his House counterparts rebutting the policy he was expecting in the principles document before it was released.

“In three fundamental respects, the House leaders’ emerging immigration proposal appears to resemble the Senate plan: it provides the initial grant of amnesty before enforcement; it would surge the already unprecedented level of legal lesser-skilled immigration to the U.S. that is reducing wages and increasing unemployment; and it would offer eventual citizenship to a large number of illegal immigrants and visa overstays,” Sessions said after the principles document was released Thursday. “Now is the time for rank-and-file House Republicans to claim the leadership mantle and to say, firmly: our goal is to transition millions of struggling Americans from welfare and joblessness to work and rising wages.”

Alternately, any Republican who wants to avoid arguing against the principles without engaging in the merits of the proposed policies can merely follow the lead of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who helped author the Senate immigration bill but has backed away since facing backlash from the base.

Rubio’s argument against passing any overhaul that in some ways resembled the law he helped write is that the president cannot be trusted to enforce the laws passed by Congress. His evidence: the administration’s handling of the attack on the 2012 attack on American diplomats in Benghazi and the increased scrutiny of conservative organizations by some employees of the Internal Revenue Service.

“I don’t know if it can happen under this administration given its lack of willingness to enforce the law. It’s a real impediment,” Rubio said at a breakfast hosted by the Wall Street Journal earlier this week.

Addressing that exact criticism, the principles indicate the GOP will only accept “reform that ensures that a president cannot unilaterally stop immigration enforcement.” The priority for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will be to only offer a bill that the majority of his conference supports. The principles represent the farthest the GOP is willing to go, he told his members, according to a source in the room at the retreat where he presented the document. He’s pitching the plan as a way to improve national security by allowing the U.S. to better identify who is in the country. He’ll continue to seek input from his members to ensure he’s not straying outside the bounds of what they will accept.

And he’ll work to shift the onus to Democrats to pass the bill.  

"These standards are as far as we are willing to go. [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi said yesterday that for her caucus, it is a special path to citizenship or nothing. If Democrats insist on that, then we are not going to get anywhere this year,” Boehner said, according to the source.

Democrats have their own issues with the principles, and one question that will have to be addressed along the way is whether Republicans want to bar immigrants from ever receiving citizenship if it grants them level status, or is open to them seeking to use existing channels to become full-fledged Americans.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of the Democrats most involved with the issue on the House side, won’t say yes or no to the Republicans until he sees something concrete, he said. Still, he called the principles “a first step.”

“I am concerned with stopping the deportations, not erecting any new barriers to applying for citizenship, protecting the rights of working people, be they immigrants or U.S. born, and making sure we don't turn our local police into enemies of immigrants in our communities,” Gutierrez said. “Citizenship is very important, to me, to Democrats, and to the American people.  Turning immigrants into American citizens over time has been the tradition in the U.S. and it has worked very, very well for more than 200 years. “

But Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, called the principles “a flimsy document that only serves to underscore the callous attitude Republicans have toward our nation’s immigrants.”

“Half-measures that would create a permanent class of non-citizens without access to green cards should be condemned, not applauded,” Trumka said. “Until we create a functioning immigration system with a pathway to citizenship, ruthless employers will continue to exploit low wage workers, pulling down wages for all. 

Both Democrats and Republicans will have to decide how far they are willing to move toward compromise. But one thing is clear: the potential for an overhaul rests with the House, and everyone else in Washington can do little more than let them work their will.

“It's a good start,” Feehery said of the principles. “It shows that the GOP leadership is seriously trying to navigate a very problematic political issue.”

As for the future? 

“I think that if a bipartisan bill gets through the House, it will get through the Senate,” Feehery said.