The one-page set of immigration principles circulated by the House Republican leaders at their annual retreat in Cambridge, Md., on Thursday shows that the GOP is taking a more expansive public view of immigration than their past statements would indicate.
"Public" is the key word there. The opinions of Republican members of Congress on immigration have varied widely for years, but the fear of political retribution for anything other than border security statements has muted those diverse opinions. Now, in theory, those opinions can come out.
The principles are in draft form, and they are meant to solicit individual members' thoughts on how the unwieldy immigration system should change.
The next few weeks will be critical for immigration as lawmakers and lobbyists parse individual House members' reactions to the policy recommendations and constituents. Think of this complex information-gathering system as the softest "whip count" of Republican support in the history of Congress. The more members who say, "No way, no how!" the less likely the principles are to morph into legislation. The more members who say, "Sure, let's look at it," the more likely we are to see actual concrete proposals.
The issue of most importance to immigrant advocates—many of whom are not Republicans—is the potential legalization of the undocumented population. To be more precise, immigrants are most concerned with removing the fear of deportation for people who are here without papers.
House GOP leadership appear willing to do that. The draft of the immigration principles states that immigrants in the U.S. illegally should be able to "live legally and without fear" in the country, but only if they are willing to admit "culpability" and all the punishments that come with that, can prove they aren't criminals, and can support themselves.
But the document outright states that "there will be no special pathway citizenship for individuals who broke our nation's immigration laws."
That doesn't mean they can't become citizens. The principles do not foreclose the opportunity for undocumented immigrants to obtain green cards, and eventually citizenship, through the current methods. People who have been in the country long enough to have young adult children who are U.S. citizens could become citizens in their own right within five years under this concept. People who marry U.S. citizens could also get their green cards relatively quickly. People whose employers want to sponsor them for green cards could also get in line for green cards and have them within a few years.
The problem for advocates and Democrats, of course, is that not everyone in the undocumented population would be able to get citizenship under these criteria. The National Foundation for American Policy, an immigration-related research group, estimates that somewhere between 4.5 million and 6.5 million undocumented immigrants could eventually become citizens under the broad constructs that have been outlined by Republicans. At best, that's only about half of the estimated 11 to 12 million unauthorized immigrants
As more concrete proposals in the House emerge, the question for Democrats, the Senate, and the White House will be whether those proposed changes would accommodate enough people to make it worth their while to bargain with Republicans. Democrats' decisions on that front will be as important as whether Republicans can eventually swallow some form of legalization.
A good example of the mixed reactions from advocates who trend liberal came from Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office. "The good news is that the House Republicans are moving forward on much needed immigration reform, but some of their standards are highly problematic." She went on to outline questions about citizenship and detention facilities.
Mixed reactions aside, the principles should allow Republicans some leeway to discuss how they feel about one of the most difficult policy areas in the country. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., took a beating among tea party conservatives for voicing the opinion last year that undocumented immigrants should be able to stay in the country and earn citizenship. He backed off of immigration in a hurry and started talking about poverty.
Earlier this week, Rubio was happy to discuss immigration again, and happy that House Republicans are thinking about it seriously. He said that his party believes many undocumented immigrants should be able to stay here, but it does not agree on what to do with those people afterwards.
"I think the consensus is that the best way to deal with them begins with ensuring that we never have this problem again and then continue to make consequences for having violated the law—penalties and wait times—and then a process by which they can be able to work and pay taxes in this country," Rubio said. "What happens after that on citizenship and so forth, I don't think there's a consensus."
Even Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a staunch opponent of anything touching legalization, said earlier this week that House Republicans may be on the right track in discussing immigration, even if he doesn't think the efforts will come to anything. "I think they've been way too defensive. They need to assert boldly the principles that their constituents believe in," he said. Then he added more dismissively, "Everyone can agree on talking points."
House Republicans make one thing clear: they are not accepting the Senate's immigration bill that creates a 13-year path to citizenship for people without papers. But the House GOP document does back citizenship for DREAMers, children who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
Let's not forget enforcement, which is a critical part of immigration overhaul from a GOP perspective. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said this in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper immediately following the release of the principles: "The approach that that we want to take is not 'trust but verify' but 'verify and trust,'" he said. That's a not-so-veiled knock on President Obama for flouting the GOP's wishes in any number of areas, including immigration, by acting unilaterally without congressional sign-off.
The GOP immigration principles say the law should ensure that presidents can't "unilaterally stop immigration," alluding to Obama's halting of some deportations under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
The principles call for a "zero tolerance" policy for people who cross the border illegally or stay in the country past the time period allotted under a visa. They say a proposed visa entry/exit system that has been in the works since 2001 should finally be completed. They say the country should "fully implement" an electronic work-authorization verification system for employers when they hire new workers.
Within minutes of the draft leaking, its content received both push-back and support. Business Roundtable called it "a positive step forward on the path to fixing America's broken immigration system." The AFL-CIO shot it down because it lacks a pathway to citizenship, with President Richard Trumka calling it "a flimsy document that only serves to underscore the callous attitude Republicans have toward our nation's immigrants." Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler called the principles "a full embrace of amnesty."
Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a longtime immigration reform advocate who continues having private conversations with House Republicans, sounded cautiously optimistic. "The details really matter and I have not seen anything concrete from the Republicans so I am not in a position to say 'yes' or 'no' to anything," he said in a statement. "There is a long way to go and we all need to carefully evaluate actual legislation, but the principles are a first step."
See the text of the draft document below:
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.
Elahe Izadi contributed to this article.