Immigration-reform watchers will keep a sharp eye on the House Republican retreat, where on Thursday leadership will unveil a set of immigration principles to its conference. And while seeing comprehensive law enacted this year would be a major feat, advocates consider the fact that Republicans are even discussing reform a win.
"I can't wait to see it," says Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a longtime House Democratic leader on immigration reform. "To me, it's the best hope we've had in the longest time, because they're going to talk about it. Because when you've got [House Speaker John] Boehner, [Majority Leader Eric] Cantor, [Majority Whip Kevin] McCarthy, and other members of the leadership squarely behind this issue, I think that's a pretty big sea change. It's not just one person over there."
But don't expect Boehner to showcase a big ol' law that will delve into all the specifics of the immigration debate. The No. 1 priority right now is to take the temperature of the Republicans assembled on a set of principles, and then if they manage to agree on something, figure out how that "something" would translate into action. "We're going to talk to our members, and once we talk to our members, we'll have more to say about how we move forward," Boehner said Tuesday.
The broad principles, which will be presented in a one-page document, are expected to call for increased border security, enforcement, and a path to legalization (but not citizenship) for immigrants here illegally. During the Republican response to the State of the Union, fourth-ranking House Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers made reference to "step-by-step" immigration reform that first deals with border security and "making sure America will always attract the best, brightest, and hardest working from around the world."
Getting House Republicans to all agree will be a tall order. Plus, it's an election year, which just makes everything more complicated. Rep. James Lankford, a member of Republican leadership who is running for the Senate in Oklahoma, has been criticized by outside groups for not being conservative enough. While he wants the House to do something on immigration reform, he acknowledges that tackling it will cause problems for those facing primary challengers.
"It'll be an issue I think for everybody. Once you get into the election year, it becomes somewhat of a circling fire squad. Everyone is trying to figure out where everyone is on an issue like immigration," he conceded. "That's why I think it is a good idea to bring out a set of principles and say at least where are we are, and set them as a baseline."
Of course there are conservatives, such as Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who say the House should do nothing on immigration because they don't trust President Obama with any major piece of reform.
But big-name conservatives aren't all pushing to avoid the topic completely. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a tea-party favorite, says the path to reform is to "focus on areas where we have bipartisan agreement," namely securing borders and streamlining legal immigration.
"It would be a mistake, what President Obama has been urging, to focus on partisan, divisive issues including a pathway to citizenship for those who are here illegally," Cruz said.
Lankford likewise advocated focusing on the common ground. "Do they want a political advantage, or do they want to start solving the problem?" he said of Democrats.
Making immigration partisan is a big worry for the Left, too. That's especially the case for someone like Gutierrez, who continues to hold private conversations with pro-reform Republicans to work toward an agreement. The Illinois Democrat has been around long enough to see how people in both parties can play immigration for electoral reasons.
"Let's face it, there are people on their side who want to exploit it politically, and they like it," Gutierrez said. "And there are people on our side who say, 'Hey, let them keep screwing over those Latinos because the more and more they come in our column.' "
This article appears in the January 30, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.