Democrats Are Awfully Tepid About House GOP Immigration Principles. Here’s Why.

There’s quiet hope that reform could actually happen, and supporters don’t want to get in the way.

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 17: Immigrants celebrate after taking the oath of allegiance to the United States at a naturalization ceremony on January 17, 2014 in New York City. One hundred and fifty-three people from 41 countries became American citizens at the event.
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Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
Feb. 5, 2014, 12:58 a.m.

Demo­crats are mildly, ques­tion­ingly op­tim­ist­ic about the House Re­pub­lic­an draft im­mig­ra­tion prin­ciples that were rolled out last week.

And that muted re­sponse is the best in­dic­at­or that they are still hold­ing out hope that re­form will ac­tu­ally hap­pen.

“[House Re­pub­lic­an] lead­er­ship has ar­tic­u­lated a path and we don’t want to pre­clude us walk­ing down that path with them,” House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er said. “We’ll see where they go and and we don’t want to im­pede mak­ing pro­gress on that, so our re­sponse has been pretty cal­ib­rated to say, OK, you set forth prin­ciples, now let’s see what kind of con­sensus you have in your party, how that will be put for­ward in spe­cif­ics, and if we can work to­geth­er to get to an end. We think that’s con­struct­ive on our part.”

Cap­it­ol Hill’s polit­ic­al land­scape around im­mig­ra­tion re­form is mostly centered around sway­ing a core of House Re­pub­lic­ans. If a chunk of the con­fer­ence in the House backs re­form this year, those prin­ciples will be mani­fes­ted in le­gis­la­tion. Some of them, like bor­der se­cur­ity, have already been ad­dressed via bills that passed House com­mit­tees.

Demo­crats may be happy Re­pub­lic­ans are talk­ing im­mig­ra­tion, but that’s as far as they’ll go. That’s par­tially be­cause it’s un­clear how the GOP draft prin­ciples will be spelled out in le­gis­la­tion, and also be­cause a Demo­crat­ic en­dorse­ment could hinder the ef­forts to get Re­pub­lic­ans on board with re­form this year.

“They have a long way to go, and I will re­spect that be­cause we took our time here to make sure we were able to pro­duce something that I think is a very good piece of le­gis­la­tion,” said Sen. Mi­chael Ben­net, a Col­or­ado Demo­crat who was in the Sen­ate Gang of Eight that craf­ted the Sen­ate’s im­mig­ra­tion bill. “We got the sup­port of both Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats, and I hope they end up in a sim­il­ar place when they fin­ish.”

A memo from House Speak­er John Boehner’s of­fice of­fers a side-by-side com­par­is­on of the House GOP prin­ciples and the Sen­ate bill, the in­ten­tion be­ing to show how the two are worlds apart.

“It’s prob­ably a good polit­ic­al move. That’s great,” Sen. Jeff Flake, an Ari­zona Re­pub­lic­an and Gang of Eight mem­ber, said of the memo. “There’s been will­ing­ness on the part of the pres­id­ent, it looks like, and Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship, to work. And cer­tainly Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors will work with them.”

Demo­crats ac­know­ledge they are giv­ing House Re­pub­lic­ans “room to breathe,” as one Sen­ate lead­er­ship aide put it. An­oth­er noted that there isn’t any­thing in the draf­ted prin­ciples that can be in­ter­preted as a deal-break­er, at least not yet. “We don’t want to be viewed as the ones who tor­pedoed this thing,” one House Demo­crat­ic law­maker said.

“There’s a lot of space be­ing giv­en, and what I said, there are more ques­tions than an­swers,” said Demo­crat­ic Rep. Raul Gri­jalva of Ari­zona. “A lot of my col­leagues who have been on this is­sue are keep­ing their powder dry. They’re not say­ing any­thing.”

But an in­tern­al de­bate is stir­ring among Demo­crats as to how long to hold back cri­ti­cism. The GOP draft spe­cific­ally rules out a “spe­cial path­way to cit­izen­ship for those who broke our na­tion’s im­mig­ra­tion laws,” in fa­vor of a leg­al­iz­a­tion mech­an­ism. What the draft doesn’t in­dic­ate is wheth­er those who tread down the path to­ward leg­al­iz­a­tion could even­tu­ally be­come cit­izens.

Gri­jalva said one deal-break­er for him is a pro­hib­i­tion of cit­izen­ship for any of those im­mig­rants here il­leg­ally now.

But just be­cause so many hope re­form will hap­pen this year doesn’t mean it ac­tu­ally will. The im­mig­ra­tion de­bate has only barely be­gun in the House. The pro­spect of ac­tu­ally vot­ing on le­gis­la­tion is a ways off, es­pe­cially with the debt-ceil­ing fight im­me­di­ately ahead and a fall elec­tion loom­ing. Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship, mean­while, be­lieves it can take its time. 

And that time­frame may ex­tend out a while. Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Mario Diaz-Bal­art, a sup­port­er of re­form, said at a Tues­day Bloomberg Gov­ern­ment break­fast that a ma­jor­ity of House Re­pub­lic­ans op­pose mov­ing ahead with im­mig­ra­tion this year. Some Re­pub­lic­ans, like Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, called it an “ir­resolv­able con­flict,” adding, “I don’t see how you get to an out­come this year with the two bod­ies in such a dif­fer­ent place.”

The de­bate is mov­ing in a dir­ec­tion where Re­pub­lic­ans an­swer ques­tions on the pos­sib­il­ity of re­form by say­ing many dis­trust the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to ac­tu­ally en­force im­mig­ra­tion laws. “We don’t trust the pres­id­ent to en­force the law,” Rep. Paul Ry­an, R-Wis., an ad­voc­ate for re­form, said this week­end.

But don’t ex­pect Demo­crats to hold their tongues on that point, es­pe­cially with the re­cord num­ber of de­port­a­tions un­der Obama.

“It’s a way to ra­tion­al­ize their un­will­ing­ness to move for­ward,” Hoy­er said. “I don’t give it any cred­ib­il­ity.”

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