House GOP Makes Aggressive Opening Bid on Immigration

Fawn Johnson
National Journal

House Republicans are ready to play ball on immigration—aggressively. They are taking the strategy they attribute to President Obama—pushing for legislation and taking political credit, win or lose—and using it for themselves. They are asking for big-time enforcement, much of it highly offensive to Democrats. If the final negotiations don’t work out, they can always say they tried and Democrats rejected their overtures.

Step One: State your position. House Speaker John Boehner eased his caucus’s fears that he would kowtow to Democrats when he declared three times Tuesday at a closed-door meeting Tuesday that he would not put an immigration bill on the House floor without the support of a majority of rank-and-file Republicans, according to a lawmaker who was there.

Boehner also made it clear that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., is running the show when it comes to how the House will approach changing immigration law. Goodlatte wants the overhaul to be done piece by piece, a distinct departure from the Senate’s comprehensive legislation.

Goodlatte came out swinging. The first bill taken up by his committee on Tuesday is by far the most hated by reform advocates and Democrats because it deputizes all police officers to enforce immigration laws. Activists disrupted the committee meeting with cries of “No!” and wore signs that said “Keep Families Together” and “Remember November.” Committee ranking member John Conyers, D-Mich., called the bill “extreme and heinous.”

Until now, advocates of citizenship for undocumented immigrants have been hoping that disagreements within the GOP about whether to fear pro-immigrant Latino voters would allow Democrats to muscle a broad bill through the House that has a path to citizenship.

House Republicans are letting these advocates know that it is a mistake to use their disagreements against them. They may differ wildly on how much they should concede to advocates on a path to citizenship, but the GOP is in wide agreement that there should be lots and lots more immigration enforcement.

What’s more, they all worry that President Obama is in this fight only to win political chits from Hispanic voters. By acting in their own way now, at least they can’t be blamed for not trying.

Step Two: Play to your strengths. The state and local immigration-enforcement bill is deeply resonant of GOP frustration with Obama and previous White Houses for lax enforcement. It also touches on major states-rights tenets close to conservatives’ hearts.

The bill would give state and local jurisdictions the right to identify, apprehend, investigate, and detain illegal immigrants. Goodlatte made no bones about his disdain for the federal government when he added his own tweak to the bill that he said would ensure “liberal federal judges cannot undermine the ability of states and localities.... It provides state and local enforcement the hook they need, regardless of whatever federal jurisdiction they are unfortunate enough to operate in.”

The committee got even tougher later in the day when it approved an amendment by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to effectively nullify memos from the Homeland Security Department to defer deportation of “dreamers”—undocumented youth who were brought to the United States as minors. Many Republicans think Obama exceeded his authority in allowing that program, although Democrats say it may have been responsible for his reelection.

Anyone who is looking for a unified Republican voice can find it in protests against an overbearing, big government. Immigration hard-liners wonder why the House GOP didn’t think of it sooner. “In our opinion, the state and local bill should have been the major focus of the House of Representatives in 2010 and 2011,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that opposes a path to citizenship and wants reduced immigration.

Step Three: Show you’re serious. Stein said that House Republicans in the previous Congress lost some of their momentum on immigration enforcement by opting first for legislation that would mandate electronic employment verification. The effort stalled when agricultural growers protested that it would cripple their workforce, which is about 75 percent unauthorized. The bill didn’t make it out of committee, and Republicans looked weak and unfocused on immigration.

They are rectifying that mistake now. The committee plans to work through two other bills before the Fourth of July recess, in tandem with the Senate’s expected passage of its comprehensive immigration bill.

Up next is an agriculture bill that farmworker advocates despise. It would give undocumented farmworkers temporary work visas but no green cards. The visa holders would be required to leave the country for certain periods of time between growing seasons.

Next week, the committee is on track to pass a bill that would require employers to electronically verify their new hires two years after enactment. Notably, that bill is the first on the committee’s list that doesn’t depart dramatically from the comprehensive immigration proposal in the Senate or the measure being drafted by a bipartisan “gang” of seven House members. (Both the Senate and House comprehensive proposals have a five-year phase-in.)

The other House bills on tap later this summer also have things in common with the Senate and House “gang” efforts. One of those bills, sponsored by Goodlatte and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., would boost high-skilled work visas. There will also be an as-yet undefined bill to “address the millions of individuals currently living unlawfully in the U.S.,” Goodlatte said. No word yet on how that dicey trick is accomplished.

Goodlatte and Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., repeatedly insisted Tuesday that the state and local immigration bill is a “first step” in a much longer process toward immigration reform. But they definitely made their point with that first step: White House bad. Local cops good.