House Republicans Back Plan to Legalize Undocumented Workers

12:55PM Jan 31, 2014
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Boehner’s guidelines stipulate that legislation should ensure U.S. visas and green-card allocations "reflect the needs of employers."

Jan. 31 -- House Speaker John Boehner urged fellow Republicans to back an immigration plan that would legalize undocumented workers while stopping short of granting U.S. citizenship.

Boehner is pushing Republicans into a debate that has cost them support from Latino voters. The issue has been so divisive in his party that Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, who oversees House races as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said a measure may not be unveiled for months until deadlines pass to challenge incumbent lawmakers.

"The point is that most of the primaries will probably have faded by then," Walden said.

Boehner’s guidelines, distributed to House Republican lawmakers yesterday at a private policy retreat in Cambridge, Maryland, stipulate that legislation should ensure U.S. visas and green-card allocations "reflect the needs of employers." Temporary job programs should help the agricultural industry and not displace U.S. workers, according to the document.

The framework backs legalization for undocumented immigrants. It opposes granting citizenship, which was the centerpiece of a comprehensive Senate bill that passed with bipartisan support in June.

"There will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws," according to the document obtained by Bloomberg News. "Rather, these persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S."

‘Deal With’

"It’s time to deal with it, but how you deal with it is critically important," Boehner told reporters yesterday. "It’s one thing to pass a law, it’s another thing to have the confidence of the American people behind that law."

Boehner’s push for immigration changes risks further dividing House Republicans, who have splintered on votes to pass a budget, the appropriations bill and the farm bill.

He promoted the framework yesterday by telling lawmakers it was as far Republicans are willing to go, according to a Republican who was in the room during the meeting. Boehner told lawmakers that if House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats insist on a path to citizenship for immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally, immigration legislation won’t go anywhere this year, according to the Republican, who asked for anonymity to describe the private meeting.

‘Important Step’

President Barack Obama signaled a willingness to consider the Republican proposal, saying his differences with the leadership plan weren’t that wide.

"If the speaker proposes something that says right away, folks aren’t being deported, families aren’t being separated, we’re able to attract top young students to provide the skills or start businesses here and then there’s a regular process of citizenship, I’m not sure how wide the divide ends up being," Obama said in an interview with CNN taped yesterday and broadcast today.

The principles are an "important step forward," Fred Humphries, Microsoft Corp. vice president of U.S. government affairs, said in a statement. Humphries said there’s a "severe" shortage of high-skilled workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Charles Schumer of New York, the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, said the principles show there is a "real possibility" to pass an immigration bill.

"It is a long, hard road but the door is open," Schumer said in a statement.

‘Amnesty’ Decried

Heritage Action, a Washington-based group that advocates for small government and backs Tea Party candidates, said the guidelines eventually would give undocumented immigrants "amnesty," a politically loaded word that Republicans have used to derail previous immigration debates.

"Not only are the principles unworkable and contradictory, but this effort is already shifting focus away from Obamacare, unemployment and other pressing issues," Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler said in an e-mail.

Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said the immigration issue wouldn’t hurt party members campaigning to repeal Obamacare.

"There’s nothing else that’s going to happen up here in Washington that’s going to overshadow the very negative things that are happening to people personally because of Obamacare," Scalise said.

McCain’s Stance

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who helped craft his chamber’s bill, said the principles were "fine" and he wouldn’t "take shots from the sideline."

"Most people you know, in their right mind, should be glad that we’re seeing movement on the House side," McCain said. "If you’re going to start carping at them on the first day when they put out principles, then you’re not serious about immigration reform."

Boehner said a piecemeal approach to advancing immigration legislation -- in contrast to the Senate’s comprehensive measure -- would build confidence among Republican lawmakers and their voters.

The proposal from Boehner and other Republican leaders would offer a pathway to citizenship for children brought to the U.S. illegally, the group known as "dreamers." They would be required to meet eligibility standards, including serving in the military or obtaining a college degree.

Strict Conditions

Immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as adults or overstayed a visa wouldn’t get a path to citizenship separate from current immigration law. They would, however, have access to legal status after following a set of strict conditions.

They’d have to admit culpability, pass background checks, pay fines and back taxes, and work toward English proficiency. The draft standards would block gang members and sex offenders from accessing a legalization program and require people seeking legal status to support themselves and their families without federal assistance.

The legalization plan hinges on unspecified "enforcement triggers" that would have to be implemented.

"You can’t begin the process of immigration reform without securing our borders, and the ability to enforce our laws," Boehner said. "Everyone in our conference understands that’s the first step."

Cruz Opposition

Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, said yesterday in Washington that he opposes a path to citizenship, even for immigrants who were brought to the country as children.

"A pathway to citizenship is profoundly unfair to the millions of legal immigrants who followed the rules, who waited in line years, sometimes decades," Cruz said at a Bloomberg Government breakfast. "It is also certain to increase illegal immigration."

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest business-lobbying group, have pushed Republicans to overcome the opposition of some in their ranks to immigration- law revisions.

Many Republicans agree on the need to revamp U.S. policy after exit polling showed their party’s presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012. Reaching out to minority voters was a top recommendation of a Republican National Committee report after the election.

The number of eligible Hispanic voters grew 19 percent to 23.3 million in 2012, compared with 19.5 million in 2008, according to a June report from the Pew Research Center. The number of white voters declined for the second presidential election in a row.

Republican ‘Factions’

Republican lawmakers who support a path to citizenship often risk a backlash. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has drawn primary opponents this year, in part because he backed the Senate’s comprehensive immigration measure that passed last June on a bipartisan 68-32 vote.

"We’ve got all kinds of factions in our party," Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who supports revamping immigration law, told reporters on Jan. 28. "We are moving in the right direction. Right now, I see that the train is on its tracks and it’s moving forward."