An emerging coalition of House Republicans is arguing that young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children constitute "a special protected class" that should eventually be eligible for citizenship, an approach they say combines sound policy with smart politics.
Conservatives remain adamant, however, that no such legislation be considered until a border-security bill is passed and tough enforcement triggers are in place.
This thinking represents an important shift within the House Republican Conference, where many members have long vocally opposed providing "amnesty" to anyone living in the U.S. illegally. At the same time, it underscores the emphasis on what conservatives have called a "border-first" mentality—that legalization should not be legislated until new border-enforcement laws are on the books.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is the driving force behind the strategy to focus on legalizing undocumented youths. According to Republican aides, passing such a bill would equip Republicans with a reasonable answer to the question of what to do with the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. It would also force Democrats into a political lose-lose: Either endorse a GOP proposal that legalizes so-called "Dreamers" or oppose this longtime policy goal and hold out for blanket legalization for the entire undocumented community.
As one House leadership aide framed it, "How can they say no to the kids?"
Cantor's push, which has the blessing of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is also endorsed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and several influential conservatives such as Reps. Raul Labrador of Idaho and Jim Jordan of Ohio. It's still early—Cantor and company have yet to release any legislative language—but lawmakers predict that such a measure will garner majority support in the oft-fractured House Republican Conference.
"I think a majority would support this, yes," Labrador told National Journal on Wednesday. "But there must be border security first."
On Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee's Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee convened a hearing aimed at distinguishing young illegal immigrants, who unwittingly violated U.S. immigration law, from their parents, who knowingly entered the U.S. illegally or overstayed their visas.
Many of the Judiciary members—including Goodlatte and Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.—have long opposed a comprehensive approach that would include providing citizenship to illegal immigrants. But at Tuesday's hearing, these lawmakers and many of their conservative colleagues voiced support for legalizing the young undocumented community.
"The law treats children differently," Gowdy said, calling them "a special protected class." He later added: "Children who were brought here have not committed a crime."
Another Republican member, Rep. Ted Poe of Texas, said of the so-called Dreamers: "They did not consent to the act; they did not make that determination mentally. I think, therefore, they should be treated in a special way."
Nearly all of the Republican members of the Judiciary panel echoed that sentiment Tuesday, with one noticeable exception: Rep. Steve King. The Iowa lawmaker, known as the House's leading immigration hawk, expressed irritation that the committee was holding a hearing to discuss a bill that hasn't been written. Meanwhile, King continues to draw criticism from a bipartisan assortment of colleagues after recently telling Newsmax, "For everyone who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert."
Labrador condemned King's comments Wednesday at a forum for conservative lawmakers, calling them "irresponsible and reprehensible." Labrador, who has butted heads with King over immigration for several months, also rebuked the media for giving King's remarks outsize coverage, arguing that the Iowa hardliner represents a "small, small minority" within the House GOP.
Outside of King's comments, though, Labrador said he was encouraged by Tuesday's "beautiful hearing." After listening to several hours of emotional testimony from witnesses and empathetic remarks from lawmakers, Labrador said he's confident Cantor's pending legislation would be backed by the majority of House Republicans.
"The Judiciary Committee is a very conservative committee, and almost all of the conservative members said yesterday that they would support it," Labrador told National Journal after Wednesday's forum.
Cantor has left open the possibility that his bill could hit the floor ahead of a border security vote, which is expected after the August recess. But with his legislative language yet to be written, and only five working days remaining before recess—not to mention conservative insistence that border security must come first—leadership aides acknowledge that it's unlikely to happen.
Even with House leadership expected to schedule the border security vote first, there is no guarantee that a majority of the conference will support any attempt to legalize the young undocumented population. Some conservative members complain that giving citizenship to Dreamers (a group named for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or Dream, Act) will only incentivize more foreign parents to bring their children to the U.S. illegally. Others, meanwhile, say the Obama administration won't enforce the border-security measures Congress passes, and therefore they don't view it as a prerequisite to anything.
If Cantor's coalition is to succeed, House aides say, they must convince rank-and-file members that their plan is good policy as well as good politics. Aside from dealing with the complex, emotional issue of what to do with young illegal immigrants, they say, Republicans will practically be daring Democrats to turn their backs on the demographic they have long claimed to champion.
Some House Republicans have gotten the message, and are already antagonizing the other side in anticipation of such a showdown. Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., said Wednesday that if Democrats choose to reject this hypothetical GOP proposal, they will have thrown Dreamers "under the bus" in pursuit of an all-or-nothing policy agenda.
It would signal, Schweikert said, "the exploitation of these kids by the very activists who have paraded them out front."
Republicans acknowledge, however, that there will be a host of complications in legislating who makes the cut for citizenship: Are they too old? Are they too young? Do they have family here? Have they been involved in any criminal activity? What level of education have they attained?
Cantor and company say they are willing to grapple with these tough questions. The toughest, however, is the one they should expect from Democrats: If you legalize young children, how can you advocate deporting their parents?
Republicans struggled to answer that question at Tuesday's hearing, but they insist that citizenship for Dreamers won't be allowed to cascade into citizenship for everyone. As Goodlatte, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said Tuesday: "I do not believe parents ... should be afforded the same treatment as their kids.”
This article appears in the July 25, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.