Updated 6:13 p.m. | CAMBRIDGE, Md. – Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio released his long-awaited immigration overhaul principles Thursday afternoon, for the first time laying out a broad GOP-backed pathway to legalized status for undocumented immigrants.
Boehner and other top Republicans have been talking about it for months, but the document lays out a draft for how Republicans want to take on the contentious issue, which is splitting their party at their annual retreat here. The party will discuss and potentially amend the document, and it is possible that it will not be accepted at all.
The principles stress interior and border enforcement must be enacted before mechanisms to legalization can begin and notes that Republicans do not favor a "special pathway" to citizenship for anyone who illegally traversed the border into the United States. However, it does present options for those roughly 11 million immigrants living in the country. “These persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S., but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits),” the document states. “Criminal aliens, gang members, and sex offenders and those who do not meet the above requirements will not be eligible for this program.”
The plan also includes measures that would address visas, employment verification, changes to the current legal immigration system and provide "an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children through no fault of their own."
A GOP aide contrasted this piece-by-piece style with the Senate's immigration bill, which was more than 1,200 pages long, and emphasized that leaders intend to make sure members and constituents understand each step of the immigration process before moving on to the next principle.
Boehner himself made the pitch to his conference to act, according to a source in the room.
"It’s important to act on immigration reform because we’re focused on jobs and economic growth, and this about jobs and growth," he told his flock. "Reform is also about our national security. The safety and security of our nation depends on our ability to secure our border, enforce our laws, improve channels for legal entry to the country, and identify who is here illegally."
Bohner reiterated his opposition to the Senate bill and insisted the principles would not be compromised.
"These standards are as far as we are willing to go," he said. "Nancy Pelosi said yesterday that for her caucus, it is a special path to citizenship or nothing. If Democrats insist on that, then we are not going to get anywhere this year."
Republicans were vigorously debating the principles, with the fate of a rewrite hanging in the balance.
Boehner has been preaching action for months, and in addressing reporters Thursday morning, he reiterated his desire to push forward incremental bills that would restructure the nation’s immigration system.
"Day after the 2012 election, I said it's time for Congress and the president to deal with this very important issue," Boehner said at a morning news conference. "I think it's time to deal with it."
At an afternoon gathering here at a private conference in a sprawling Hyatt Inn resort overlooking a snowy Chesapeake Bay, members waded into the issue. Rep. Jeff Denham, who will help lead a session later focused solely on immigration, spoke in favor of the acting this year, but others rebutted him, according to a source in the room.
Although Boehner and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., made the case for reform, other influential members spoke out against acting this year, said Rep. John Fleming, R-La.
Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, Science Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Budget Vice Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., who are influential in conservative circles, all said reform should not move forward this year, Fleming said.
“My sense is that the consensus here is that we should not move forward and that leaders will abide by that,” Fleming said. “On a political basis, this is a suicide mission for Republicans. Why would we want to change the topic for a very toxic problem Democrats have with Obamacare?”
Indeed, political considerations weigh heavy on members, many of whom worry that a vote on the issue would draw a primary challenge. States hold their primaries throughout the year, so it will be impossible for leadership to wait out every potential challenge — Texas primaries, for instance, are held in early March, while in Florida, party voters do not decide until August.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden tried to allay those concerns, telling reporters that an overhaul bill is important to take up but would not be on the calendar anytime soon.
“My hunch is that it doesn't come up tomorrow. It's probably months out,” he said. “The point is that most of the primaries will have faded by then anyway. By the time you get to June, most of them are behind you.”
Republicans agree broadly on some aspects of the changes, for instance adding more border security measures and, to a lesser extent, allowing agricultural workers to stay in the country legally while also traveling home. But the point of contention is whether or how to provide legal status for the millions of immigrants.
For members in solid-red districts, it will be hard to sell any such vote as anything less than amnesty, an abhorrence to conservatives and influential outside groups.
Rep. Jason Smith, a junior member of the Judiciary Committee, where the policy will have to originate, said constituents in his conservative Missouri district see no distinction between giving legalized status to immigrants and giving them citizenship outright.
“I think they’re the same thing,” he said. “I have great concerns about the legalization aspect.”
After listening to his colleagues weigh in, Rep. Joe L. Barton, R-Texas, predicted the issue will be insurmountable, not simply because of divisions in the party but because it will be impossible to find policy that both Republicans and Democrats will support.
“I think we’re probably going to wait until next year,” he said. “I’m not afraid to engage in a constructive dialogue on it, and if there really is a bipartisan deal that works, take a look at it. But I wouldn’t put a lot of political chips on it this year.”
Adding to that, Republicans cite a mistrust of the Obama administration to carry out the border enforcement, a particular concern in the wake of the president’s State of the Union promise to bypass Congress whenever possible.
“Whatever we pass, there’s no real trust that the president’s going to enforce those laws equally. That’s been a big problem on a lot of fronts, but especially on immigration,” said Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
Rep. Tom Cole, a Boehner ally, said leadership still has a big decision to make, one that will determine whether they can indeed wrangle a majority of the conference behind an immigration rewrite. He said 218 Republicans in favor of the overhaul is likely impossible, but said leaders could get enough from both parties to plow ahead if they work for it.
“The leadership will have to make a decision as to what they want to do, knowing it’s a contentious issue,” he said. “If they come to agreement … then as long as they’re willing to sort of manage the conference, then I think we can probably get to a majority of the majority.”
Here are the full GOP principles:
Standards for Immigration Reform Our nation’s immigration system is broken and our laws are not being enforced. Washington’s failure to fix them is hurting our economy and jeopardizing our national security. The overriding purpose of our immigration system is to promote and further America’s national interests and that is not the case today. The serious problems in our immigration system must be solved, and we are committed to working in a bipartisan manner to solve them. But they cannot be solved with a single, massive piece of legislation that few have read and even fewer understand, and therefore, we will not go to a conference with the Senate’s immigration bill. The problems in our immigration system must be solved through a step-by-step, common-sense approach that starts with securing our country’s borders, enforcing our laws, and implementing robust enforcement measures. These are the principals guiding us in that effort. Border Security and Interior Enforcement Must Come First It is the fundamental duty of any government to secure its borders, and the United States is failing in this mission. We must secure our borders now and verify that they are secure. In addition, we must ensure now that when immigration reform is enacted, there will be a zero tolerance policy for those who cross the border illegally or overstay their visas in the future. Faced with a consistent pattern of administrations of both parties only selectively enforcing our nation’s immigration laws, we must enact reform that ensures that a President cannot unilaterally stop immigration enforcement. Implement Entry-Exit Visa Tracking System A fully functioning Entry-Exit system has been mandated by eight separate statutes over the last 17 years. At least three of these laws call for this system to be biometric, using technology to verify identity and prevent fraud. We must implement this system so we can identify and track down visitors who abuse our laws. Employment Verification and Workplace Enforcement In the 21st century it is unacceptable that the majority of employees have their work eligibility verified through a paper based system wrought with fraud. It is past time for this country to fully implement a workable electronic employment verification system. Reforms to the Legal Immigration System For far too long, the United States has emphasized extended family members and pure luck over employment-based immigration. This is inconsistent with nearly every other developed country. Every year thousands of foreign nationals pursue degrees at America’s colleges and universities, particularly in high skilled fields. Many of them want to use their expertise in U.S. industries that will spur economic growth and create jobs for Americans. When visas aren’t available, we end up exporting this labor and ingenuity to other countries. Visa and green card allocations need to reflect the needs of employers and the desire for these exceptional individuals to help grow our economy. The goal of any temporary worker program should be to address the economic needs of the country and to strengthen our national security by allowing for realistic, enforceable, usable, legal paths for entry into the United States. Of particular concern are the needs of the agricultural industry, among others. It is imperative that these temporary workers are able to meet the economic needs of the country and do not displace or disadvantage American workers. Youth One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children through no fault of their own, those who know no other place as home. For those who meet certain eligibility standards, and serve honorably in our military or attain a college degree, we will do just that. Individuals Living Outside the Rule of Law Our national and economic security depend on requiring people who are living and working here illegally to come forward and get right with the law. There will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws – that would be unfair to those immigrants who have played by the rules and harmful to promoting the rule of law. Rather, these persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S., but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits). Criminal aliens, gang members, and sex offenders and those who do not meet the above requirements will not be eligible for this program. Finally, none of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced.