House GOP Floats Legalization Path for Immigrants

Republicans lay out tough path for undocumented immigrants to get legal status

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Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

House Speaker John Boehner and a news conference during the GOP retreat Thursday.

House Republican leaders on Thursday proposed giving undocumented immigrants a path to legal status if America’s borders are secured and immigrants meet specific requirements, in a broad outline for reform that represents the party’s most substantive play on the issue in years.

The one-page set of “principles,” distributed by party leaders to rank-and-file lawmakers at a House GOP retreat here, laid out strict conditions for adult immigrants to obtain legal status. “These persons could live here legally and without fear in the U.S., but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families” without public benefits, according to the document. The children of undocumented immigrants would have to pass eligibility standards and either serve in the military or attain a college degree. The GOP outline also calls for Congress to implement a “workable” electronic employment verification system, an entry-exit visa tracking system that prevents fraud and verifies identity, and a visa program designed to keep high skilled immigrants working in the country. The legalization measures would only take effect once “specific enforcement triggers have been implemented.”

Just a few months after the House blocked a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate, the latest move could breathe new life into a lethargic movement for changing what both parties agree is a broken system. Some members of House Republican leadership have previously supported such provisions, but many conservative lawmakers recoil at anything that resembles amnesty for immigrants here illegally. The proposal comes at a moment when Republican leaders are increasingly worried that their low approval ratings among a growing population of Hispanic voters could once again harm their prospects of taking back the White House.

“I think it’s time to deal with it,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters. “It’s been turned into a political football. I think it’s unfair.”

Reform advocates, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the business-backed Chamber of Commerce, applauded the effort as a significant breakthrough. “We welcome the House Republicans to the immigration debate,” Frank Sharry, executive director of pro-reform group America’s Voice, said in a statement. “It’s about time.”

The question now is whether Democrats, who have already acquiesced on tactics in voicing a willingness to pass immigration reform in pieces rather than in a comprehensive bill, will also be willing to move in the GOP’s direction on policy. Pulling Democrats away from compromise is the belief that stronger reforms remain a political winner, especially important considering the difficult climate they face in the coming midterm elections. “I think that any immigration bill that the Republicans advocate that stops short of a path to citizenship is going to damage them permanently with Hispanic voters,” Joel Benenson, President Barack Obama‘s chief pollster, told reporters on Wednesday.

And Boehner signaled that his first offer could be the last. “These standards are as far as we are willing to go,” he said.

Democrats, who prefer a full path to citizenship for all immigrants in the country illegally, welcomed the news as a step forward.

“While these standards are certainly not everything we would agree with, they leave a real possibility that Democrats and Republicans, in both the House and Senate, can in some way come together and pass immigration reform that both sides can accept,” New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said in a statement. “It is a long, hard road, but the door is open.”

“We’ve seen those reports and we will closely look at the document when it is released,” a White House official said. “The President’s principles on immigration reform are well established. We welcome the process moving forward in the House, and we look forward to working with all parties to make immigration reform a reality.”

In the short term, Republicans could likely pick up seats in the House and Senate without having to deal with immigration. A recent Pew Research poll found that “dealing with illegal immigration” is one of the lowest priorities for Americans. Some conservative pundits have decried doing anything on immigration reform for fear that it will take attention off President Barack Obama’s divisive health care reform law. The Madison Project, a conservative group, immediately decried the principles as “politically tone-deaf.”