Thursday Is a Big Day for the Future of Immigration

House Republican leaders will unveil a set of reform principles at their annual retreat.

 Attendees hold signs calling for immigration reform during a rally in support of immigration reform, in Washington, on October 8, 2013.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
Jan. 29, 2014, 9:59 a.m.

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.’ “

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