U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said his fellow Republicans must deal with U.S. immigration policy, pushing lawmakers into 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 last year -- would build confidence among Republican lawmakers and their voters.
“It’s time to deal with it, but how you deal with it is critically important,” he 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.”
Boehner today will provide a list of immigration principles to House Republicans gathered at a three-day policy retreat in Cambridge, Maryland. The principles will endorse a path to legal status for undocumented workers, though not citizenship, according to a Republican aide who reviewed the document and requested anonymity to speak before it’s released.
“Hands down, the most divisive aspect of the immigration debate is a pathway to citizenship for those who are here illegally,” Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, said today at a Bloomberg Government breakfast.
Cruz, a leading voice among lawmakers aligned with the small-government Tea Party movement, said he opposed a path to citizenship, even for immigrants who were brought to the country as children. The House immigration principles back citizenship for those immigrants.
“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.”
The House guidelines will also stipulate that border-security measures and enforcement of current laws be tied to other immigration changes, the aide said.
“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.”
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.
Boehner’s push on immigration risks further dividing House Republicans, who have splintered on votes to pass a budget, the appropriations bill and the farm bill.
“We’ve got all kinds of factions in our party,” Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who supports a rewrite of immigrations laws, 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.”
Immigration has been a contentious debate 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.
Still, Republican lawmakers who support a path to citizenship often risk a backlash. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has drawn 2014 primary opponents, in part because he backed the Senate’s comprehensive immigration measure that passed in June on a bipartisan 68-32 vote.
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. He 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.”