After many Washington observers pronounced the latest immigration reform efforts dead, House Republicans gave the issue new life late Thursday at the party’s annual winter retreat. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, released Republican principles for immigration reform, laying out for the first time a GOP plan that would include a path to legal status for the country’s roughly 11 million illegal immigrants.
“It’s time to deal with it,” Boehner told reporters. “But how we deal with it is going to be important.”
Some conservatives voiced concern that the GOP focus on immigration is capitulating to President Barack Obama's agenda, but Boehner made it clear his conference will do things its own way: The House will not take up the Senate immigration bill, will pass smaller bills one at a time, and will not include a “special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration law.”
Instead, the Republican plan calls for mandatory electronic employment verification, an entry-exit visa tracking system, a revamped legal immigration system that focuses on the nation's economic needs, and a path to legalization for illegal immigrants already residing in the U.S.
But first, Boehner said, the U.S. borders must be secure: “You can’t begin the process of immigration reform without securing our borders.”
The Republican principles closely align with those of the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT), a coalition of Christian organizations and leaders that has urged lawmakers to advance an immigration overhaul. The EIT and other pro-reform groups quickly applauded the the GOP announcement, saying, though they recognize it’s early in the process, the principles are broadly consistent with their objectives.
“I was very encouraged by the principles,” said Russell Moore, an EIT signatory and president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “They’re strong on both the Romans 13 aspect of law enforcement and also the Matthew 25 aspect of compassion for the immigrants.”
Although not all evangelicals agree on how to go about reform, Moore told me he sees “remarkable consensus” on the need to fix the broken immigration system: “As we talk to people around the country, there are very few people who want open borders or blanket amnesty, and very few people who want to deport 11 million people.”
What to do with the current illegal immigrant population could still be a sticking point: Republican principles allow a path to citizenship for people who were brought here as children—“One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents”—but it does not explicitly say adults who illegally crossed the border or overstayed visas would at some point be given the same opportunity.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a key immigration reform proponent, this week told The Washington Post any deal without a “direct” path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is “a joke. It's a hoax is what it is.”
Moore and Samuel Rodriguez, another EIT signer and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, told me they don’t think the Republican principles disallow illegal immigrants the future opportunity to become citizens. Rodriguez, who has discussed immigration reform with President Obama and every member of Republican leadership, said the most important thing is to stop families from being torn apart. He said the GOP plan “reiterates my conviction that we shouldn’t give a special pathway for anyone,” but “at the end of the day, that is something that is in the red zone. The Republicans just received the ball.”
Even in a best case scenario, actual pieces of legislation likely won’t be ready for votes until the summer months. Primary season would be mostly finished at that point, but since some stretch into August, conservatives fear supporting immigration reform could draw primary challenges.
Rodriguez said it shouldn’t matter: “They will experience some difficulty in the primaries, but it takes conviction to speak truth, courage to do justice, and spiritual fortitude to stand on the right side of history. … It’s the right thing to do morally, and I do believe it’s the right thing to do politically for the Republican party.”