POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 28, 2014
WASHINGTON » The House Republican leadership's broad framework for overhauling the nation's immigration laws will call this week for a path to legal status — but not citizenship — for many of the 11 million adult immigrants who are in the country illegally, according to aides who have seen the party's statement of principles. For immigrants brought to the United States illegally as young children, the Republicans would offer a path to citizenship.
But even before the document is unveiled, some of the party's leading strategists and conservative voices are urging that the immigration push be abandoned, or delayed until next year, to avoid an internal party rupture before the midterm elections.
"It's one of the few things that could actually disrupt what looks like a strong Republican year," said William Kristol, editor of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, calling an immigration push "a recipe for disaster."
"Don't Do It," said the headline on a National Review editorial on Monday aimed at the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio. "The last thing the party needs is a brutal intramural fight when it has been dealt a winning hand" — troubles with the president's health care law — ahead of the elections, the editorial said.
At the same time, Republicans have seen their support from Latinos plummet precisely because of their stance on immigration, and the "statement of principles," barely more than a page, is intended to try to reverse that trajectory.
The statement of principles criticizes the U.S. higher education system for educating some of the world's best and brightest students only to lose them to their home countries because they cannot obtain green cards; insists that Republicans demand that current immigration laws be enforced before immigrants in the U.S. illegally are granted legal status; and mentions that some kind of triggers must be included in an immigration overhaul to ensure that borders are secured first, said Republican officials who have seen the principles.
With concern already brewing among conservatives who call any form of legal status "amnesty," the document has the feel more of an attempt to test the waters than a blueprint for action. House Republican leaders will circulate it at a three-day retreat for their members that begins Wednesday in Maryland.
Several pro-immigration organizations that have been briefed on the guidelines say they are not intended to serve as a conservative starting point for future negotiations, but rather as a gauge of how far to the left House Republicans are willing to move.
The principles say that Republicans do not support a "special path to citizenship," but make an exception for the "Dreamers," the immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, quoting a 2013 speech by Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House majority leader.
"One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents," Cantor said at the time. "It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home."
Even ardent proponents of an immigration-law overhaul are, at best, cautiously optimistic. In June, a broad immigration overhaul — with a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants now in the country illegally, and stricter border security provisions that would have to be in place before the immigrants could gain legal status — passed the Senate with bipartisan support.
But that legislation has largely stalled in the Republican-controlled House, where Boehner has rejected any negotiations with the Senate over its comprehensive bill.
"This is obviously a long, hard road," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, who helped negotiate the Senate bill, "but I think since August, the number on the other side vehemently opposed has stayed the same, the number who think it should go forward has grown, and numbers in the wide middle are less opposed than they used to be. But that doesn't guarantee an outcome one way or another."
Republican party leaders, backed strongly by business groups, have said an overhaul is critical if they are to repair their political position with Latino and other immigrant voters.
Barry Jackson, Boehner's former chief of staff, is consulting for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports an overhaul that expands high-technology visas and guest worker programs.
But immigration is less of an issue during midterm elections, when immigrants are not as likely to vote and House members in safe districts are insulated somewhat from the wrath of more moderate swing voters. Often the biggest threats to Republicans are primary challenges from more conservative candidates who say that changing the immigration status of someone who is in the country illegally amounts to amnesty for a lawbreaker.
Rep. John Carter, R-Texas and one of the Gang of Eight House members who tried to forge a bipartisan overhaul, was quoted by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call as saying that an election year is not the time to press forward. "Immigration is a very, very contentious issue," he said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., has allowed his staff to discuss with House conservatives ways to derail the push. On Monday, he said they were making headway.
"Republicans in the House have a choice whether to go along with certain powerful forces and the president or stand with conviction against a larger flow of immigration that threatens the financial future of middle-class Americans," he said.
Kristol, who said he has spoken with a number of Republican candidates, said "a rebellion is beginning" among Republicans who feel blindsided by the resurgence of the immigration issue.
On the Democratic side, a major question is whether those pushing for a broad immigration overhaul would accept any Republican proposal that falls short of full citizenship for immigrants who are now here illegally. President Barack Obama has said he wants any new immigration legislation to include a path to citizenship for both children and adults.
But citizenship, said Randel K. Johnson, a senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is not "really critical to getting a deal done."
"I think most people would think citizenship is important because then people feel they are part of the American dream," Johnson said.
But, he added, "if these people can come out of the shadows, work and travel, that's what they want, that's what recent polls have shown, and that will move the economy along."
Jonathan Weisman and Ashley Parker, New York Times