A Different Approach on Immigration

Republicans on House Judiciary insist that reform is not dead — and they may be right.

The audience takes the pledge of allegiance before US President Barack Obama speaks on immigration reform at Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center in San Francisco, California, on November 25, 2013.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Dec. 11, 2013, 3:03 p.m.

John Boehner gave the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee more power over im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion than it has had in years when he an­nounced last month that the House would not go to con­fer­ence with the Sen­ate on its com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion bill.

The House speak­er’s state­ment gives the com­mit­tee free rein to put to­geth­er an im­mig­ra­tion pack­age on its own sched­ule and terms without the pres­sure of match­ing the Sen­ate bill, something of a rar­ity at a time when many ma­jor is­sues are grabbed up by the cham­ber’s top lead­ers.

“That gives us more lat­it­ude to have the dis­cus­sions that need to take place,” said com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte, R-Va. “We’ve been hard at work on that throughout the year. We pro­duced sev­er­al bills. We’re work­ing on sev­er­al more.”

Yet it also leaves Good­latte, a former im­mig­ra­tion at­tor­ney, pick­ing his way through a tangled is­sue with little in the way of a map. Throughout 2013, he has stub­bornly stuck to his plan to con­sider smal­ler im­mig­ra­tion is­sues sep­ar­ately and de­lib­er­ately, even as lob­by­ists and act­iv­ists were buzz­ing about the Sen­ate’s massive bill and the House’s bi­par­tis­an “gang” of mem­bers who were work­ing on sep­ar­ate le­gis­la­tion.

It was an ap­proach that drew cri­ti­cism, with many say­ing im­mig­ra­tion re­form would be bur­ied in the House, nev­er to emerge. Not so, says Good­latte. “You shouldn’t just use the past tense here, be­cause this is an is­sue that’s go­ing to go on for a while,” he said.

After watch­ing the House group col­lapse and con­ser­vat­ives like Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., get lam­basted from the right for sup­port­ing the Sen­ate bill’s path to cit­izen­ship, Good­latte’s in­sist­ence on a go-slow ap­proach looks more san­guine.

“We’re not go­ing to make the mis­takes made in the Sen­ate, and I think people un­der­stand that. Just ask Marco Ru­bio,” Good­latte said. “We’re not go­ing down the path of try­ing to write some quick com­pre­hens­ive bill that doesn’t ad­dress a very com­plex sub­ject in a care­ful man­ner.”

Good­latte’s pro­cess calls for the pan­el to pass a few more bills in 2014 to round out the four com­pleted in com­mit­tee this year that ad­dress highly skilled work­ers, ag­ri­cul­ture work­ers, elec­tron­ic veri­fic­a­tion, and loc­al po­lice en­force­ment. The House would then take up those bills at vari­ous points in the year, per­haps in bunches of two or three to keep law­makers from be­ing over­whelmed.

They would then wait for the Sen­ate to re­spond, and nobody knows how long that would take. An im­mig­ra­tion bill has nev­er been ne­go­ti­ated in this fash­ion be­fore. From Good­latte’s per­spect­ive, that’s a good thing.

Boehner’s re­peated state­ments op­pos­ing the Sen­ate bill, which passed in June, signaled to many ob­serv­ers — per­haps falsely — that im­mig­ra­tion is dead in the House. They see a Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence that doesn’t agree on what to do and Demo­crats who are united in op­pos­i­tion to most of the smal­ler bills that the Re­pub­lic­ans want. The four im­mig­ra­tion bills passed in com­mit­tee have yet to see the light of day on the House floor.

Boehner is not will­ing to go against the ma­jor­ity of the GOP caucus to make an im­mig­ra­tion bill hap­pen. His pub­lic state­ments are mixed on the top­ic, but his com­mit­ment to ac­tion showed last week when he hired Re­becca Tal­lent to handle im­mig­ra­tion in his of­fice. Tal­lent has ne­go­ti­ated sev­er­al ma­jor im­mig­ra­tion bills for former Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ar­iz., and Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., and she sup­ports a path to cit­izen­ship.

Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee mem­bers and staff in­sist that the lack of House floor ac­tion be­lies the com­mit­tee’s activ­ity on the is­sue. No one be­lieves it should lie dormant just be­cause 2014 is an elec­tion year. “Build­ing the kind of con­sensus it takes to get it done is go­ing to take some time, and it’s go­ing to be a chal­lenge,” Good­latte said.

The com­mit­tee is ex­pec­ted to mark up at least three more bills next year. Law­makers are pre­par­ing one on asylum and one on guest work­ers. The trick­i­est bill the com­mit­tee could take up would be to leg­al­ize some por­tion of the un­doc­u­mented pop­u­la­tion. It re­mains to be seen wheth­er that bill would cov­er only those who were brought here as chil­dren, or a broad­er swath of people.

The leg­al­iz­a­tion piece is ex­tremely treach­er­ous for Re­pub­lic­ans, who have to an­swer to “no am­nesty” con­stitu­ents in their dis­tricts. They also have to con­tend with power­ful com­mit­tee mem­bers, like former Chair­man Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who say en­force­ment and bor­der-se­cur­ity meas­ures must pass be­fore any­thing else.

But sev­er­al oth­er House Re­pub­lic­ans are quietly in­volved in the leg­al­iz­a­tion ef­fort, in­clud­ing Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor. If they are suc­cess­ful, their bill prob­ably won’t look any­thing like the broad leg­al­iz­a­tion plan that Demo­crats want. But it will be the linch­pin of the House Re­pub­lic­ans’ pack­age be­cause it will sig­nal to Demo­crats that they can be­gin the bar­gain­ing pro­cess.

Demo­crats say im­mig­ra­tion re­form is not worth do­ing without leg­al­iz­a­tion, but the man­ner in which it hap­pens is up for ne­go­ti­ation. “You don’t like the Sen­ate bi­par­tis­an bill? Fine, come up with what you do want and let’s keep this mov­ing for­ward,” Rep. Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez, D-Ill., said in Novem­ber.

Gu­ti­er­rez and Im­mig­ra­tion Sub­com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Zoe Lof­gren, D-Cal­if., have signaled a will­ing­ness to sign on to Can­tor’s pro­posed Kid’s Act to leg­al­ize un­doc­u­mented people who were brought here as chil­dren. But they say they can only sup­port it if it doesn’t cur­tail those peoples’ oth­er rights as cit­izens. Some ver­sions of the bill have in­cluded lan­guage that would pro­hib­it those who ob­tain cit­izen­ship from spon­sor­ing their par­ents for green cards. Demo­crats say that is a non­starter be­cause it would al­ter fun­da­ment­al rights.

Oth­er stum­bling blocks abound, but ne­go­ti­at­ors say they are ready to move for­ward when the mo­ment strikes. That mo­ment could come as early as March, after primary-elec­tion fil­ings are done and GOP mem­bers don’t have to worry about chal­lengers from the right.

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