Business groups and activists lobbying for broad changes in U.S. immigration laws say they now expect House Republicans to consider piecemeal legislation this year and could start by tightening border security.
Party leaders have been discussing options for months. House Speaker John Boehner, who says he’s committed to advancing legislation, last month hired an immigration policy adviser from the Bipartisan Policy Center to work on the issue.
“Boehner has had many opportunities to shut down this process and he never has,” said Randel Johnson, senior vice president for immigration and labor issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We’re definitely working towards an expectation that the House is going to move forward on immigration.”
House Republicans are wary about facing voters in November without changing immigration policies, and are cautious about embracing legislation deemed to be an “amnesty” that could be used by opponents in the March to September primary season.
The Senate in June passed a comprehensive bill that would offer a path to U.S. citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants after improved border security measures are put in place. It would require employers to verify employment by using E-Verify, revamp the visa system to increase high-skilled labor sought by technology firms and add temporary worker visas for longer-term jobs and seasonal agricultural positions.
House leaders say they won’t take up the comprehensive Senate bill. Instead, they’re discussing options for piecemeal measures, talks that will continue at the Republicans’ annual retreat this month, a leadership aide said.
Any differences between the House and Senate versions would need to be resolved, a process that would be difficult if Senate Democrats demand the pathway to citizenship that many House Republicans have said is a non-starter.
“The Republican Party cannot afford to alienate conservative voters by embracing anything like an amnesty proposal,” said Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action for America, which is affiliated with the Heritage Foundation that backs limited government.
Boehner rejected Democratic accusations that Republicans’ refusal to take up the Senate bill means they’re not interested in immigration legislation. It’s “absolutely not” dead, he told reporters in November.
“I’ve been committed to it, I’m still committed to it,” Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said Dec. 5. “I’ve also made clear that dealing with a 1,300-page bill that no one’s read is a non-starter for us.”
“We’re going to try to do this in a commonsense, step-by-step approach,” he said.
That could involve border security bills that have moved through committees, and may also include measures yet to be written.
“I do believe the House can be very successful in developing and passing immigration reform bills that are productive for the country and put an end to the current system, which is a total failure,” said Haley Barbour, the former Republican governor of Mississippi.
Boehner’s hiring in December of Rebecca Tallent, a director of immigration policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, was cited as a sign of commitment to a measure.
Her addition is an “affirmation of his strong desire to move legislation in 2014,” Barbour, who has worked on immigration issues with the Bipartisan Policy Center, said in a statement.
Johnson said the Chamber plans to increase its immigration advocacy in 2014, including meetings with lawmakers and activities in congressional districts.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, whose members need immigrant workers because U.S. citizens are unwilling to pick crops, is pushing farm-state lawmakers to back legislation that would include a guest-worker program for seasonal employees such as those who take part harvests.
Randall Stephenson, chairman-elect of the Business Roundtable that represents big company chief executive officers, sent a letter to lawmakers in December saying they needed to act on legislation “fixing America’s broken immigration system.” Stephenson is chairman and CEO of AT&T Inc.
The Chamber, National Immigration Forum, Partnership for a New American Economy and FWD.us, a technology group formed by Facebook Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, coordinated a “conservative fly-in” in October where pastors, business leaders, Republican lawmakers and small-government activists met with at least 80 Republicans in Congress to push for immigration legislation.
“There’s more people pulling the wagon this time than ever before,” Johnson said.
Republicans have resisted calls for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. They’ve insisted on enforcement of existing visa laws and tighter border security before considering changes for workers who would be subject to deportation, either because they’d crossed the border illegally or had overstayed their visas.
House leaders have discussed moving border security legislation before taking up measures to deal with immigration policy.
President Barack Obama in his first term emphasized the record deportations to show he was tough on immigration enforcement, seen as a condition for easing existing laws.
With immigration stalled in the House, the Obama administration shifted its priorities from forced departures. Deportations, which climbed to a record 409,900 in fiscal 2012, fell 10 percent in the year ended Sept. 30. It was the first annual decline in more than a decade.
“It’s hard to see a comprehensive package passing, but it’s also hard to see Republicans just killing it now. They’re sufficiently worried that it’s too high a price to pay” politically, said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The 2014 election calendar requires House Republicans to win twice. House Republicans seeking re-election must survive primary contests starting March 4 in Texas and ending six months later.
Democrats in the Nov. 4 general election need to pick up a net 17 seats to take control of the House. Democrats have said they’ll highlight immigration issues this year as a way to win a greater share of the Hispanic- and Asian-American vote.
Hispanic voters backed Obama 71 percent to 27 percent over Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, according to the Pew Hispanic Center’s analysis of exit polls. The 44-point margin was the largest since 1996, and contributed to Democrats gaining eight seats in the House and two in the Senate.
“There’s certainly an interest in the Republican leadership in the House to give a signal that we’re looking into pieces of this that wouldn’t be as controversial among the political right but not moving rapidly until there’s some sign that the regular conservative are holding their own against the radicals” in primary campaigns, Mann said.
“It may be easier if they survive that to move some things along as we move into the fall,” he said.
The Senate bill is S. 744. The House bills include H.R. 1773 and H.R. 2131.