First Principles

The House Republicans’ position on immigration reform is to always look reasonable.

Republicans including, from left, John Boehner, Adam Kinzinger, and Patrick McHenry might get what they want out of the immigration fight even if no bill passes.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

CAMBRIDGE, Md.—House Republicans had promised it for weeks: When they gathered for their annual policy retreat, they’d tell you their immigration policy. A front-page Tuesday scoop in the New York Times claimed they’d call “for a path to legal status – but not citizenship – for many of the 11 million adult immigrants who are in the country illegally.”

And so they did. Shortly after 4 p.m., allies of the immigrant legalization movement started catching leaks of the GOP draft humbly named “Standards for Immigration Reform.” There was the finger-wagging denunciation of a “special path to citizenship,” there was the “legal residence,” and there was the carve-out “for those who were brought to this country as children through no fault of their own.” By 4:20, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (co-sponsor of the Senate immigration bill) had praised the framework. By 4:30, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (the hammer-swinging opponent of said bill) had denounced it.

The conference’s discussion session on immigration reform was supposed to start at 4:30.

Of course, everything about this year’s conference carried a sense of the inevitable. Republicans hardly even pretended that they might lose their House majority this year. Addressing reporters in the Hyatt’s riverside restaurant, where a closed bar was advertising “Throwback Thursday” drink specials, House campaign chairman and Oregon Rep. Greg Walden bragged about Democratic retirements and suggested that the GOP would win some seats. “I’m not going to predict whether it’s six or 30,” he said.

With the House locked up, Republicans see 2014 as a chance to take the Senate. If they win the upper chamber, they will pass their own bills and dare a lame-duck Barack Obama to veto them. If Obama’s spending his last two years on defense, Republicans can then concentrate on winning the White House.

That’s where immigration reform comes in, and where a companion plan for an Obamacare “replacement” follows. The Republican Party and (especially) the Congress remain far less popular than the president—not a problem for 2014, given the electoral map, but quite a problem for 2016. And so, in Cambridge, the party’s leaders and more loyal backbenchers moved in and out of the conference’s press room to sell their evolution from “opposition” to “alternative.”

As “messaging,” it seemed to work. The Capitol Hill press corps was joined by a larger-than-usual contingent of Spanish-language media, asking Republicans to commit to do something or other by the end of the year. None of them said no.

“It’s something we’ve got to take up and work on,” said Walden.

“I think it’s time to deal with it,” said Speaker of the House John Boehner.

“If we fix our broken immigration system,” said Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee, “I think you’ll see that number of people here illegally drop dramatically.”

The do-something impulse terrifies parts of the party’s base. After Walden’s remarks were reported, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol accused him of threatening the land with “Speaker Pelosi.” “If GOP leadership proceeds with this unique combination of cynicism and recklessness,” wrote Kristol, “who could blame some voters for supporting such an independent candidate in November?” On Twitter, single-term Tea Party Rep. Joe Walsh threatened that “[i]f Republicans push for legalization or citizenship, there may be no denying that the time for a third party is upon us.”

Republicans simply aren’t worrying about that. Walden openly admitted that a bill might be easiest to pass in or after June, once most of the possible primary challenges from the right were dispensed with. Would the “legal residence” for workers, be it limited to agricultural workers or expanded to other vocations, take away jobs from American citizens in highly depressed areas? No sense worrying about that.

“Any time you have more people and more workers, that’s a good thing,” said Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger. “The question is: Do you give citizenship to people who came here the wrong way? These programs have to be well-crafted to make sure they’re not taking jobs away from Americans, but I’ve talked to a lot of farmers who say it’s important to have legal status. Citizenship or legalization—that’s kind of the sexy issue everybody’s talking about. Maybe you give that chance [for citizenship] to their children.”

The beauty of the “principles” was in their studied lack of specificity. There’s nothing in them about the specific triggers that would be hit before some immigrants were eligible for citizenship. The denial of a “special path” to citizenship is understood, by reform advocates, as loose language that would prevent deportation and keep the non-special path wide-open. And the lines about citizenship for children really is bold, in a party where efforts to deny automatic “anchor baby” citizenship in line with the 14th Amendment crop up from time to inopportune time.

What if none of this results in an actual bill? Politically, that might be the best outcome for the party. That’s the point of looking and sounding open to negotiation—redefining President Obama as unreasonable, obstinate, and tyrannical. A couple of days before the conference, I asked Florida Sen. Marco Rubio whether “legalization” without citizenship required a bill at all. The president could, after all, issue an executive action, calling off deportations.

“That would be a terrible mistake,” said Rubio. “No. 1, it would expire at the end of his presidency. No. 2, I think it’s an overreach of his powers. No. 3, he’s already said he would not do that, so if he did, he’d be violating a promise he made. No. 4, it would set back even further the hopes of arriving at a solution that’s responsible.”

Rubio isn’t really relevant to the process in the House, but he knows what they’re thinking. Immigration reformers have managed to keep their cause alive, in a year when the House has no political incentive to pass it. They could still get what they want. But Republicans could get what they want, too, without satisfying the reformers. And everybody knows that as they plow ahead.