July 10 (Bloomberg) -- House Republicans need to sort out some basic questions on immigration, including what many of them mean in saying they won’t agree to give amnesty to undocumented immigrants.
In a private meeting today, House Republicans will begin talks that may determine whether Congress agrees this year on a new immigration system that Democrats and Republicans alike say they want. At stake is President Barack Obama’s highest domestic priority thus far in his second term after winning 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in the November election.
“People need to talk about what is amnesty,” James Lankford of Oklahoma, a member of the Republican leadership, said in an interview in Washington. “People throw around the word amnesty like it has one definition.”
The Democratic-led Senate’s immigration bill combines a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. with a $46 billion border-security plan. While 14 Senate Republicans joined Democrats in passing the bill June 27, many House Republicans say the citizenship provision amounts to amnesty and insist they won’t accept it.
House Speaker John Boehner says his chamber won’t take up the Senate bill. Republicans will focus first on securing the border with Mexico before considering issues such legal status for undocumented immigrants, he said yesterday.
“We all believe that if we are going to go forward on immigration reform, the first big step is you have to have a serious border security,” Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters yesterday.
Democrats say they’ll reject any immigration plan that lacks a path to citizenship.
“We’re going to continue to press” for the Senate measure, said Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Former President George W. Bush, who tried and failed to overhaul U.S. immigration laws in his second term, said today at a naturalization ceremony at his presidential center in Dallas that the nation’s immigration system is “broken.”
“Our whole nation benefits” from immigration, Bush said. While saying he would stay out of political discussions, the former president added, “I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate.”
Lankford supports allowing legal status for undocumented immigrants though no special citizenship path. Other “basic parameters” that Republicans must work out starting with today’s meeting include standards for border security, future legal immigration and law enforcement for immigrants in the U.S., he said.
House Republicans also must decide whether to stick with their plan to offer individual proposals instead of a comprehensive bill like the Senate measure.
“There’s never too many options,” Representative Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican and one of his party’s spokesmen on immigration, said in an interview. “We should never be in a hurry to get anything done. We should do it right.”
Obama has said he wants to sign immigration legislation by the end of this year. The president met today with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to discuss administration efforts to urge House passage of immigration legislation.
The president will use “all the tools available” to get an immigration bill through Congress, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters today. “It’s always been an uphill battle” because House Republicans worry about primary challenges if they support a bill, Carney said.
The Obama administration issued a report today that said enacting the Senate immigration measure would increase the U.S. gross domestic product by 3.3 percent in 2023 by creating a larger labor force, higher productivity and stronger technology and agriculture.
Republicans, in turn, hope a new immigration system would boost their party’s appeal with Hispanics after 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney promoted self-deportation as the answer to illegal immigration.
There is “no question” that “by the end of the year, we could have a bill” passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president, Boehner said in an ABC television interview broadcast June 11.
Still, both sides are far apart. Boehner has said he won’t bring immigration legislation to the House floor unless it has support from most of the chamber’s Republicans. That means he won’t allow a bill to pass with mostly Democratic support.
Texas Representative Mike McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said he will present a border-security bill to the conference that his panel approved unanimously in May.
The measure would set a two-year goal of “operational control” of heavily trafficked border areas of the U.S.-Mexico border and a five-year goal of controlling the full border. Operational control was defined as apprehending 90 percent of people crossing illegally.
In an interview, McCaul said his panel’s legislation has more teeth than the Senate’s plan. His bill doesn’t set a cost for its border-security plan or address any steps to legal status for undocumented immigrants.
The Senate bill, S. 744, would create the U.S.’s most costly border-security plan. It would double the U.S. Border Patrol’s size by adding 20,000 agents, require 700 miles of fencing at the Mexico border, and add unmanned aerial drones to help police the border.
It doesn’t require the U.S. to reach a 90 percent apprehension rate, McCaul said. In addition, the House is “more responsible, because we’re not throwing a bunch of money at the problem before we get a plan,” he said.
The Senate bill also would revamp U.S. visa programs. It would create a program for low-skilled, non-farm workers through an agreement between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s biggest business lobbying group, and the AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, favors a step-by-step approach to immigration legislation. With no Democratic votes, his committee has approved measures that would set up a farm guest-worker program, strengthen enforcement of immigration laws, expand an electronic employment-verification program and allow more high-skilled foreign workers.
Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and a Judiciary Committee member, called some of the bills “absurd” during a June 28 event sponsored by Bloomberg Government.
The enforcement bill “would turn state and local law enforcement officers around the country into immigration agents,” Lofgren said in a June 18 statement.
Lofgren is part of a House bipartisan group that has been working on an immigration plan for four years. The four Democrats and three Republicans have yet to present their legislation. Goodlatte said in an interview with Bloomberg Television that his panel may rely in part on the bipartisan group’s plan.
Labrador, who quit the bipartisan group over concerns that its plan would allow taxpayer-subsidized health-care benefits for undocumented immigrants, said he is working on his own proposals. One of them deals with children who were brought to the U.S. illegally. Labrador wouldn’t give details, saying he planned to present some of his ideas to House members today.
Lankford said the idea of offering citizenship to such children will be on the list for discussion today.
The House isn’t likely to address a path to citizenship, said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a network of business groups that favor legal immigration.
“Never say never, but it seems to me out of the question,” Jacoby said in an interview. Among the more likely options are legal status short of citizenship, allowing citizenship only for people brought in illegally as children, or doing nothing, she said.
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