Republican Gowdy Cites Optimism on House Immigration Plan

Representative Trey Gowdy, a leading Republican on immigration, voiced optimism that the U.S. House would pass a plan, be ready to negotiate with the Senate by year-end, and set the stage for enacting legislation in this Congress.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think the current system is broken,” Gowdy, chairman of the immigration panel on the House Judiciary Committee, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend. “So if you think the current system is broken, how can you then fashion an argument that we should do nothing?”

House Republicans oppose the Senate’s immigration plan, which as its centerpiece has a pathway to citizenship for about 11 million undocumented immigrants. Gowdy of South Carolina said the House would likely cobble several bills together, instead of one comprehensive plan.

Gowdy, 48, said he wasn’t sure the House would vote on any measures before the August recess and suggested Republicans would tackle the issue through the fall.

“I would not be surprised if we were not on the precipice of a conference or at least debating the principles of a conference committee” by December, Gowdy said.

The fate of immigration legislation “depends on whether or not the administration wants a bill or an issue in 2014,” during the midterm elections, Gowdy said.

Still, he said, Republicans should “be prepared to walk away at some point if our principles are not being honored and not being followed.”

Boehner Position

Gowdy’s position on an immigration overhaul falls in line with House Speaker John Boehner and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who think the House can reshape the Senate’s immigration measure. Other Republicans, such as freshman Tom Cotton of Arkansas, say the Senate’s legislation can’t be salvaged.

Gowdy’s assessment after a much-anticipated Republican conference on immigration legislation July 10 is that most House Republicans want to tackle the issue.

Lawmakers said after the meeting that U.S. border security must be improved before matters such as legal status for undocumented immigrants can be taken up. They rejected the comprehensive plan passed by the Senate.

Boehner of Ohio and other Republican leaders said in a joint statement July 10 that they don’t trust President Barack Obama’s administration to secure the border as part of a comprehensive plan. The statement didn’t mention proposals to grant undocumented immigrants citizenship or some other type of legal status, an issue dividing Republicans.

Citizenship Path

Democrats say they will reject any immigration plan that lacks a path to citizenship, leaving the two sides far apart.

Gowdy said House Republicans may get some Democratic support for their immigration plan, even though four bills approved by the Judiciary Committee had no Democratic support.

The judiciary panel has approved measures creating a farm guest-worker program, strengthening enforcement of immigration laws and expanding an electronic-verification program.

Gowdy said Republicans can get Democratic support “once they believe us that we’re not going to bring the Senate bill to the House floor.” He said House Republicans’ insistence on strengthening border security is a political “symbol” as well as necessary.

“There’s the border, but we have two borders, and if this is about national security, we need to secure both,” Gowdy said.

‘Visa Overstays’

Apart from the border with Mexico, “you have to have internal security, because almost 50 percent of the current 11 million were visa overstays,” he said. “So there’s no fence in the world that’s going to prevent that. And you have to have employment security.”

The best outside estimate is that the U.S. government now stops about half of all illegal border-crossings from Mexico, according to a May report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. dropped to an estimated 11.1 million last year from a peak of 12 million in 2007, according to 2012 census data.

Gowdy defended the House bill that would empower state and local governments to enforce immigration laws.

If law enforcement is trusted “in every other category of crime, why not immigration?” Gowdy said, citing the cooperation between Boston law enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings in April.

‘Natural Subgroups’

Gowdy said undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. should be divided into those who want a path to citizenship and those who want to “live and work in a legal status without fear of being deported.” They would all have to pass a background check, and those who do would be divided into “natural subgroups.”

Children brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents would be on “a much abbreviated path to citizenship,” as would those who are “willing to trade military service for citizenship.” Everyone else would wait at the back of the line of those who have abided by the law.

Gowdy, who said he couldn’t sell the Senate’s plan in his district, which includes Greenville and Spartanburg, expressed confidence that the state’s senior Republican U.S. senator, Lindsey Graham, one of the architects of the bill, could persuade voters statewide.

“He’s a better lawyer than I am,” Gowdy said. “He’s more persuasive.”

Gowdy played down the political peril for Republicans in the immigration debate. Whether the Republican stance on immigration alienates Hispanics and Asian-Americans, who voted more than 70 percent Democratic last year, depends on “how we communicate.”

He cited the 1986 immigration-law revision “where we did have amnesty,” and “even after amnesty,” President George H.W. Bush received a smaller percentage of the Hispanic vote than his predecessor, Ronald Reagan.

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