Republicans’ Knotty Immigration Talks in Election YearMichael C. Bender and Derek Wallbank
House Republican leaders will revive the U.S. immigration debate, which has divided the party and hurt their standing among Latino voters, with a set of principles to frame legislation heading into an election year.
The guidelines call for a path to legal status for 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and would provide citizenship for those illegally brought to the country as children, said a House Republican aide who reviewed the document and requested anonymity to speak before it’s released.
President Barack Obama, who made revising the law a top priority for his final term, last night urged Congress to “get immigration reform done this year.”
“If we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement -- and fix our broken immigration system,” Obama said in his annual State of the Union speech.
House Republicans shelved the immigration debate last year as Speaker John Boehner struggled to keep his caucus together. As the party’s standing among voters improved with the troubled rollout of Obama’s health-care law, revisiting the immigration debate risks further fractures before the November election.
“It’s a very divisive issue, very difficult issue,” said Representative Tom Graves, a Georgia Republican backed by the Tea Party movement. “It’s a moral issue with families involved, real lives involved.”
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 Latino eligible 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. 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 of backing the Senate’s comprehensive immigration measure that passed in June on a bipartisan 68-32 vote.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that an immigration push is going to divide the Republican Party and take the focus off Obamacare,” said Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action, an advocacy group that supports candidates tied to the small-government, Tea Party movement.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who has consulted for Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and the National Rifle Association, said the immigration debate shouldn’t overshadow the party’s message on Obamacare.
“Obamacare is a winning issue, but normally there is more than one winning issue in a good campaign,” Ayres said. “Fixing a horribly broken immigration system is good for the country in the long run, and good for the Republican Party in the long run.”
For Obama, the November congressional elections will largely determine his success in carrying out his agenda for his final two years in office, including immigration changes.
Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, will discuss their immigration proposals at a policy retreat scheduled to start today in Maryland, where they plan to work out their legislative agenda for the year.
Republican leaders will watch the reaction from conservative lawmakers, and whether they equate legal status with amnesty, a term that has doomed previous immigration debates.
“It’s hard to see where the base of support is for this,” Holler said. “It’s going to be defined as amnesty and that’s not going to be helpful.”
To win support, the House Republican immigration principles call for border-security measures to be tied to other immigration changes. The framework also says that current laws should be enforced before granting legal status to undocumented workers, according to the House Republican aide.
Republican Representative Doug Lamborn of Colorado said the House could individually address some issues, such as increased border security and expanding visa options for immigrant students who graduate from college and want to stay in the U.S., as well as those brought to the U.S. as children.
Lamborn said he’s open to proposals from leadership, though he opposes “amnesty” for people who entered the country illegally as adults.
Representative Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana Republican, said in an interview that a number of lawmakers in his chamber “are not interested in a comprehensive immigration bill.”
Some Republicans oppose even a piecemeal legislative approach to immigration out of concern it could be “logrolled” with items Republicans can’t support in a conference committee with the Senate, Stutzman said.
The Senate measure would create a path to citizenship and would direct $46.3 billion toward securing the border with Mexico. The border provisions, the costliest plan ever, were added on the Senate floor to gain Republican support.
Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, said yesterday it would “be an enormous mistake” for Congress “to pass a bill that fails to secure the borders and grants amnesty to those who are here illegally.” Cruz said he was holding talks with Tea Party-backed Republicans in the House on the immigration issue.
“I very much hope the House of Representatives does not go down that road, and I don’t believe they will,” Cruz said in an interview. “It’s certainly something the American people don’t want to see Congress do.”