GOP to Huddle on Immigration at Retreat

The annual House Republican retreat will feature an open session on an immigration rewrite, during which members will be allowed to freely speak about the contentious issue.

The official schedule has yet to be released, but sources involved in planning the yearly getaway told Roll Call that the weekend event will feature a session dedicated solely to immigration policy changes.

The session will focus on the principles of an immigration rewrite that GOP leaders are working to compile, according to sources familiar with the event’s planning. Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio is expected to release the document to members ahead of or during the retreat, which begins Jan. 29 in Eastern Maryland.

Leadership is hoping to reach some semblance of common ground among the conference, where the views on how to overhaul the nation’s immigration system have been sharply divided and the rhetoric consistently hot.

To that end, the session could be a dangerous proposition. Leadership hosted a similar meeting of the minds in the Capitol last summer and despite a lively discussion, ultimately emerged at a stalemate after failing to round up enough support within the conference to move ahead on legislation.

Proponents of moving bills this year, however, are counting on the impression that members have progressed in their willingness to take up meaningful policy changes, including legislation that could provide legal status to many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

“Members are in a much different place than they were last year,” said a GOP leadership aide. “It’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds.”

The document outlining the principles is expected to be unspecific, a quality leaders hope will allow it to attract general support from the conference.

Yet GOP members pushing the conference to take up the issue are worried about a backlash against the document from conservatives within and outside Congress. One of those members said the group could “go ballistic” on the document, causing leadership to rethink bringing anything to the House floor.

“I don’t think it necessarily hurts us but I’m not sure it helps us either,” the member said, speaking on background to discuss private deliberations.

Most notably and most controversially, the document is expected to tackle the legal status of undocumented immigrants, an issue GOP leaders have so far avoided addressing outright. Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a recent interview on Telemundo that he would support a plan that would allow those immigrants to live and work in the states and travel to their home countries while also paying taxes.

Source close to the discussions said the best chance of legalizing those immigrants' status is a proposal that would allow them stay in the country if they submit to background checks and pay back taxes. They would then be able to apply for citizenship using current channels available to immigrants.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., a proponent of a policy overhaul, said some in the conference would be receptive to such a plan. “You can’t strengthen our border without talking about internal security and the undocumenteds that are here today,” he said.

Still, it is clear that others, such as Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, see any attempt to provide legal status to immigrants as a nonstarter.

Compounding the trouble is that 2014 is an election year, and Republicans are worried that stepping too far out on immigration could attract primary challenges. Leadership will have to navigate whether those political considerations outweigh the criticism they would get by not acting at all.

Overall, the outline is not expected to include any surprises: Border enforcement will likely get the top billing and a proposal to legalize the children of immigrants, touted by Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s, R-Va., will likely be included. The plan is also expected to address high-skilled and low-skilled workers and potential changes to the nation’s visa system.