On Monday's episode of “With All Due Respect,” Representative Tim Huelskamp, one of the most strident anti-illegal immigration Republicans in the House, refused to directly answer a question about what he would do about the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country. “If you were president,” host Mark Halperin asked the Kansas Republican, “and Congress would pass whatever you wanted, what would you do about ... the 12 million who are in this country illegally?”
Huelskamp responded by saying he didn't know exactly how many immigrants were in the country illegally, and then tried to pivot to the importance of border security. When Halperin pressed him again for a plan to handle undocumented immigrants in the U.S., Huelskamp said “nobody in Washington I know of is talking about deportation ... That's what the president would like us to talk about.”
Asked a third time for his solution, Huelskamp again questioned the number. “I want to know how many folks are here. I want to secure the border.”
For congressional Republicans fuming over President Barack Obama's proposed executive orders that could give upward of 5 million undocumented immigrants a reprieve from the prospect of deportation, Huelskamp's answer is part of a familiar pattern in which the call to “secure the border” trumps any specific remedy for those already in the country illegally.
Back in January, following weeks of debate within the party, House Speaker John Boehner rolled out a one-page draft of principles for immigration reform. At the top of the list was the demand that “border security and interior enforcement must come first.” But the light-on-specifics plan, which also proposed offering legal status to immigrants who admitted breaking the law, paid fines, learned English, and submitted to criminal background checks, was decried as “amnesty” by many in the party, and immigration reform stalled in Congress.
Since Obama announced over the summer that he intended to go it alone with new immigration orders following the midterm elections, Republicans have held off on offering new proposals in favor of debating how to thwart what they view as an out-of-control, imperial president.
“If Senator [Mitch] McConnell went toe-to-toe with the president on this issue, he would not only be doing the right thing, he would become a national hero,” Senate Conservatives Fund President Ken Cuccinelli wrote to supporters over the weekend. “Yes, it may lead to a temporary government shutdown because the president has good reason to think Republicans will blink,” Cucinelli said, adding that this will be a “chance to shine” for McConnell, the leader of the incoming Senate majority.
Meanwhile, top-ranking Democrats in the Senate sent Obama a letter on Monday encouraging bold action and tell him to ignore Republican complaints that taking executive action would violate the U.S. Constitution. “We know that you, like previous presidents, have broad executive authority to shape the enforcement and implementation of immigration laws,” the letter said.
Two of the last three Republican presidents—Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—extended amnesty to undocumented immigrants without the kind of political explosion that Republicans are threatening now, a fact that White House press secretary Josh Earnest was happy to point out on Twitter.
Still, in a 2013 interview with Telemundo, Obama himself voiced skepticism over the legality of expanding temporary deportation protections to the very immigrants he is now considering helping.
“If we start broadening that, then essentially, I’ll be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally,” Obama told the Spanish-language network. “So that’s not an option.”
For proponents of immigration reform, a risky plan is better than no plan, and Democrats are betting they'll be seen by voters as the party that had one.
As he was introduced by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at a news conference Monday, New Mexico Representative Ben Ray Luján, the first Latino to be named the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Republicans that they should be inspired by the expected executive action. “This should encourage everyone to work together, and I'm certainly hopeful we'll see more of that,” Luján said, before shifting to a more partisan tone when assessing the GOP's immigration solutions.
“They've had a chance to put a bill up to vote,” he said. “Speaker Boehner has stalled that. If Republicans in the House and the Senate aren't happy with actions that the president will consider—and we'll see what those look like going forward—they're in charge. They can put a bill forward. And I certainly hope that we can come together and work that way. I don't believe that this is going to poison the well.”
Full transcript: “With All Due Respect”
HEILEMANN: Congressman, let’s just talk about the subject of immigration for a minute. The president’s posture basically is there’s a bill that’s been—a bipartisan bill that’s been passed by the Senate. It would probably pass on an up-or-down vote if it were put in that way to the House. He’s trying to address a problem that he would—that he would describe as a public policy problem related to the dreamers and—and others, 5 million people or so.
If the president’s execution action were not undertaken and there was no comprehensive immigration reform coming out of your body, what would you propose doing with those people that the executive action is supposed to deal with?
HUELSKAMP: Well we have an immigration problem. We have plenty of ideas to—the House to solve. Here’s what we believe. We need to fix the broken immigration system. We passed a number of bills through the House and—and through the Senate. Harry Reid, Senator Schumer and the president said either my way or the highway.
And I don’t think it’s time for a comprehensive approach. We have to first secure the border, and that’s the starting position of the House, I think the starting position of the American people. And the president seems not to want to start there. I think we can make progress on immigration, but the president has a little problem. He doesn’t want to negotiate and compromise.
HEILEMANN: Congressman, we’ll get to the border security question in a second. But again, with those 5 million people, would you propose deporting them, actually appropriating funds and having them all deported, or that they self-deport? What’s your—what’s your solution to those—the status of those undocumented workers in particular?
HUELSKAMP: Well I’d like to know what exactly how many numbers we have. We don’t know that for certain, but I think the American people are very clear the first thing you do is secure the border. And I think that was the mistake back in 1986 in that the border was not secured which led to our problems today.
But this idea—the president’s run into a little problem. It’s called the Constitution. I think if he proceeds to order amnesty by executive action, he’s going to run into some constitutional problems. He’s certainly going to run into political problems, which is why he waited six years. If he does this this week, he’s waited six years he had a chance to do this. He waited until his last election to do something that would probably be very, very unpopular.
HALPERIN: Congressman, I was going to move on to another topic, but you’re our second Republican guest in a couple weeks to not engage on a pretty direct question, so I’m going to ask it again. You’ve got more than 5 million people here illegally. I understand you’re concerned about border security.
I understand you don’t approve of the way the president’s handled this issue, but I’ll just ask you again to focus very directly on the question John was asking you about. What would you do—if you had unilateral control, if you were president and Congress would pass whatever you wanted, what would you do about the 5 million, the 12 million who are in this country illegally now?
HUELSKAMP: I don’t know how you know how many are here illegally.
HALPERIN: Congressman, you know it’s—you know it’s more than 8 million. Forget the number. You know it’s more than 8 million. There’s no one who would doubt (inaudible) more than 8 million. What you would with them?
HUELSKAMP: I can’t forget border security.
HALPERIN: No, Congressman—
HUELSKAMP: The first thing you do is border security.
HALPERIN: Totally agree. You want to border security first and you don’t approve the way the president’s handled that. Totally stipulate that. What do you propose to do with the 8 million, 9 million, however many you think there are—forget the exact number—people who are here illegally? Do you want them deported? Massive cost to deport them. Do you want to let them stay under some different basis? Self-deportation? What are you for on that?
HUELSKAMP: Nobody in Washington I know is talking about deportation. That’s what the president would like us to talk about, but at the end of the day he needs to come to Congress with a proposal—serious proposal. He’s been in Washington for 10 years and I don’t know of a serious proposal on immigration from the president.
HALPERIN: (Inaudible) bother you. I’m going to try one more time.
HUELSKAMP: There won’t be any massive deportation.
HALPERIN: Do you have a solution for what to do with those people, and if so, what is it?
HUELSKAMP: First of all, I want to know how many folks are here. I want to—
HUELSKAMP: Sir, you don’t know that. You don’t know that.
HALPERIN: Well, but Congressman, it’s a red herring to ask what the number is. You know it’s millions of people.
HALPERIN: So what do you want to—
HUELSKAMP: It’s a red herring to suggest that the president would have any authority to somehow grant amnesty.
HALPERIN: What do you want to do?
HUELSKAMP: The president has no plan other than grant amnesty.
HALPERIN: Do you have a plan to do something with those millions of people who are here illegally?
HUELSKAMP: We—we have a plan to first secure the border and then we determine politically working together with the American people where do we go from here. How many folks are out there? How many came here legally? How many actually overstayed their visa? I think we need to actually look very closely at those numbers. And that’s what the House has tried to do, say Mr. President, you’re not going to get your way on everything. We’re willing to sit down and negotiate and compromise, but we’re not going to grand amnesty.
And the president might try to do that. I think that’s when he’s going to run into a problem not just with the House of Representatives and a new Republican majority in the Senate, but the American people have rejected amnesty. They’ve rejected this president’s proposals, and I think he takes a real political miscalculation to try to ram it through by executive order.
HEILEMANN: Congressman, thank you for coming on. Don’t ever say we didn’t give you a chance to put forward a positive idea about what your policy is to actually deal with the problem. We gave you a bunch of chances and you decided not to go for it, but thank you for coming on. We appreciate it.