Republicans’ Knotty Immigration Talks in Election Year

U.S. House Republican leaders backed a broad outline for legislation that would legalize undocumented immigrants and stop short of granting citizenship.

“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.”

The guidelines, distributed to Republican lawmakers today 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.

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

Immigration Reform Takes a Detour in the Hill

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

Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, said the principles show there is a “real possibility” to pass an immigration bill. The Senate in a bipartisan vote passed a comprehensive measure last year.

“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.

Boehner is pushing his fellow Republicans to deal with U.S. immigration policy, an issue that has damaged his party’s standing among a growing Hispanic electorate.

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

‘Dreamer’ Path

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’d be required to meet eligibility standards, including serving in the military or obtaining a college degree.

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 today at a Bloomberg Government breakfast 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. “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 conservative lawmakers to immigration-law revisions.

Contentious Issue

The issue has been contentious for Republicans. Many 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.

“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.”

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.

1986 ‘Mistake’

Oregon Representative Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the party shouldn’t “repeat the mistake” of the 1986 immigration law, signed by then-President Ronald Reagan. Walden said the law “never did get security around the border.”

“When you don’t do that, then you don’t really have a legal immigration system you can count on to work,” Walden told reporters today.

Boehner said it was “unfair” that the immigration debate is a “political football.”

“That’s why doing immigration reform in a common-sense, step-by step manner helps our members understand the bite-size pieces,” Boehner said. “It helps our constituents build more confidence that what we’re doing makes more sense.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Michael C. Bender in Cambridge, Maryland at mbender10@bloomberg.net; Derek Wallbank in Cambridge, Maryland at dwallbank@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net

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