House Republicans Hope to Find Their Way on Immigration Reform

Tim Alberta and Rebecca Kaplan
National Journal

When House Republicans meet Wednesday to plot a path forward on immigration reform, the discussion is expected to quickly boil down to the policy dilemma that has splintered the GOP conference: what to do with the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants.

There is broad agreement within the House GOP that certain changes to the immigration system are necessary and long overdue. Beefed-up border security, enhanced interior oversight, mandatory E-Verify technology, and fixes to the legal immigration process all enjoy overwhelming support in the lower chamber. But on the question of providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants—the cornerstone of the Senate’s recently passed bill and the supposed linchpin to any comprehensive immigration-reform effort—there are sharply divergent views among House Republicans.

“It’s all over the map,” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, told reporters Tuesday when asked to describe his colleagues’ positions.

Labrador, a leading advocate for reform efforts, sounded doubtful that Wednesday’s “one-hour” summit will produce any solution on how to handle the question of citizenship. He joked that a weekend retreat may be more appropriate. At the very least, some members say, it would help to define the factions that have formed within the House majority.

There are certain lawmakers—including Labrador—who have hinted that citizenship could eventually be attainable for illegal immigrants, but only after tough border-security standards are met, so that voters are assured the issue is settled for good. There are others who prefer only to provide a path to citizenship for the so-called Dreamers—young, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their families and know this country as their home.

Still others are open to giving legal status to the undocumented, which would bring them out of the shadows, without bestowing full citizenship. And then there is a faction of immigration hawks, led by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa—who claims as many as 70 members in his camp—opposing legalization for anyone living in the U.S. unlawfully, period.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has not taken sides on the citizenship debate, except to emphasize that the Senate bill is “dead on arrival” in the House. Echoing many of his rank-and-file members, Boehner said Wednesday that enhanced border security must be achieved before any conversation is had about citizenship, referencing the failed promises that were made in the immigration law of 1986.

Beyond that, Boehner has been vague about which policies the House will pursue, saying simply that any piece of legislation will go through regular order, with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., running the show. Thus far, the Judiciary panel has passed bills addressing issues such as interior enforcement, employment screening, short-term agricultural laborers, and high-skilled workers. Goodlatte’s committee, however, has considered no legislation dealing with the undocumented community.

Wednesday’s meeting in the Capitol basement represents the first conference-wide forum on the issue of immigration reform. Upwards of 150 members attended last month’s immigration summit hosted by the Republican Study Committee, including multiple members of the House leadership team. What transpired during that meeting—a perceived shift among conservatives over the question of “amnesty” for illegal immigrants—prompted King to petition the leadership team for a special meeting of the entire conference. (Leadership aides say they always planned to organize such an immigration forum.)

What emerged from that June 5 RSC meeting, according to members who attended, was broad consensus on a series of basic policies—and intense dissonance over what to do with “the 11 million,” as lawmakers have taken to calling the bloc of immigrants living here unlawfully.

Whereas there was overwhelming support for tighter border enforcement, mandatory E-Verify technology, and fixes to the legal immigration process, there was a wide and variant range of opinions when the conversation turned to dealing with the millions of undocumented people living in the U.S. already.

“There were remarkably divergent views that could all be described as conservative, but were still pretty far apart,” Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., said after the RSC summit, when asked to describe the debate surrounding legalization efforts.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., noted after the meeting, “Everybody in that room agrees on better border security. Everybody in that room, I think, agrees on fixing the legal immigration system. What does that leave? That leaves us with the 11 or 12 million people who are here illegally.”

What was true then is true today: The House GOP has not reached any kind of consensus—policy-wise or messaging-wise—on how to deal with the undocumented community. Wednesday’s meeting is being billed as a step in that direction. If nothing else, members say, they hope to agree on broad parameters for the debate and specific definitions for the various policy prescriptions.

“Tomorrow is the first time to actually talk strategy—where are we, how do we define the different terms, where do we think we need to go,” Republican Policy Committee Chairman James Lankford, R-Okla., said Tuesday. “So this will be an ongoing conversation, and it won’t settle it at the end of [the meeting], but it will try to get some consensus. Then the leadership will meet, try to form the plan.”

With Republicans far short of consensus on the issue, House Democrats offered a rare picture of unity Tuesday morning after a meeting that featured appearances from the four Democratic members of the “Gang of Eight” who drafted the Senate reform bill. Emerging from the closed-door session, Democrats from both chambers were insistent that House Republicans must accept a path to citizenship if any immigration measure is to pass Congress.

“The bottom line is we all agree—the four of us and the Democratic caucus—that without a path to citizenship, there is not going to be a bill,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “There can’t be a bill.”

This stance threatens to set up a zero-sum game that Republicans have long warned could result in nothing getting passed at all. If Democrats insist on an all-or-nothing approach to immigration reform, House conservatives have said throughout the 113th Congress, the smart money is on nothing.

“I think it’s less likely today than it was a month ago,” Labrador said of a bipartisan bill passing Congress. “And I think it’s because they have staked a position that is: ‘citizenship or nothing else.’ ”