House Republican leaders have ruled out a special pathway to citizenship but do support granting some form of legal status and work permits to most illegal immigrants, according to the broad set of principles GOP leaders released Thursday that pushed the issue back to the political forefront.
The brief document, circulated to House Republicans who are holding their annual policy retreat in Maryland, calls for giving young illegal immigrants — known as Dreamers — a chance at citizenship. Republican leaders also said they will insist on a “zero tolerance policy” for future illegal immigrants and will revamp the system to make it easier for businesses to hire foreign workers legally but tougher for immigrants to bring their extended families into the U.S.
Behind the principles, though, are many unanswered questions, such as whether illegal immigrants would be granted any legal status before border security is improved and who exactly would be eligible.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, told reporters that his party’s leaders thought they had to make a good-faith offer.
“This problem’s been around for at least the last 15 years. It’s been turned into a political football. I think it’s unfair. So I think it’s time to deal with it,” he said Thursday morning before meeting with his colleagues. “But how we deal with it is critically important.”
The principles were met with anger from the right. Conservative groups said Republicans were squandering electoral chances by broaching the issue and warned that voters would stay home rather than support a party that embraces “amnesty.”
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Democrats and immigrant rights groups were more encouraging. They said they disagreed with some of the principles but Republican leaders’ signal that they were ready to negotiate opened the door to a slim possibility that a final deal could be reached this year.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who has been working for years to try to pass an immigration reform bill, said the principles released Thursday show a major shift from where the Republican Party was in 2012 with presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“We have gone from the Republicans saying ‘self-deportation’ and ‘veto the Dream Act’ to saying we need bipartisan solutions in just about a year,” he said. “We are now talking about how people stay and how they come legally, not how we kick out 11 million people and build a big moat around the country.”
Election Day 2012 was a critical moment in the debate. President Obama won re-election partly because of strong support from Hispanics, many of whom said they were turned off by what they considered anti-immigrant rhetoric from Republicans.
After election defeats, many Republican strategists said their party needed to embrace legalization of illegal immigrants as a way to make inroads with Hispanics, who represent a growing percentage of the voting population.
Not everyone agrees.
SEE ALSO: Immigration officials warn of amnesty ‘overload’
An analysis from the Eagle Forum, a group run by conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly, argues that adding immigrants will doom the Republican Party.
The analysis looked at immigrants’ ideologies and found that they were likely to be liberal on social issues, to use welfare programs at a higher rate than the native population, and to come from countries where the government plays more expansive roles in their lives.
“The key conclusion of the report is this: For conservatives, there is no issue more important than reducing the number of immigrants allowed into the country each year,” the analysis says. Copies of the report were being circulated among rank-and-file Republicans at the party retreat.
Indeed, many of those Republicans have questioned the urgency of immigration reform. They argue that their constituents are more worried about the economy and jobs than about legalizing those who have entered the U.S. without authorization or who have overstayed visas.
Some conservative activist groups vowed to recruit challengers to Republicans who back legalization. The threat of a vicious party split that could encourage base voters to stay home in November puts House Republican leaders in a difficult position.
The principles laid out Thursday move significantly to the right of the immigration bill that the Senate passed in June on a 68-32 vote with the support of 14 Republicans.
The Senate bill could grant legal status and an eventual chance at citizenship to more than 8 million illegal immigrants, according to estimates by government accountants. That proposal also gave quick legal status regardless of whether border security was in place.
By contrast, the House bill guarantees citizenship rights only for young illegal immigrants, who are considered the most sympathetic cases in the debate.
Older illegal immigrants could gain legal status but wouldn’t be guaranteed citizenship — though it’s expected some of them could obtain citizenship through regular channels such as marriage or job sponsorship.
Leaders didn’t immediately give a timeline for writing bills from the principles, but details could be tricky. Republicans have promised to tackle the issue in separate bills, forgoing the Senate’s method of one massive bill that addresses border security, interior enforcement, illegal immigrants and reform of the entire system.
Among the thorny issues is clamping down on extended family immigration. The U.S. system allows legal immigrants to sponsor spouses, children, parents and even siblings.
“This is inconsistent with nearly every other developed country,” the Republican principles said.
Adding to party leaders’ problems is a letter from the head of the labor union that represents U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers and adjudicators — the front-line employees who would have to approve legalization applications.
Kenneth Palinkas, president of the National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council, said an influx would “overload the system” and lead to criminals being approved to remain in the U.S.
“There is no quality here, only quantity,” he said in a letter to Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and House Judiciary Committee chairman. “USCIS is not equipped to handle this workload, and due to political interference in its mission, is not empowered to deny admission to all those who should be denied due to ineligibility. We have become a visa clearinghouse for the world, rather than the first line of defense for a secure immigration system.”