Will Immigration Reform Finally Happen?

Speaker John Boehner finally tipped his hand on an issue he says he's committed to getting done. But will the rest of the Republicans in Congress agree to his set of "principles"?


CAMBRIDGE, Maryland — In this snowbound summer town on the frozen Chesapeake Bay, about 100 reporters crammed into a maritime-themed restaurant, half a mile down the road from the hotel where the Republican members of the House of Representatives were holding their annual retreat. It was cold, and there was not enough coffee to go around.

We were here, for the most part, because, after more than half a year of insisting they would create their own approach to immigration reform, House Republicans were finally going to do it. At the retreat, they had announced, they would release a set of “principles” for their approach to immigration. Hope for progress on the issue, which had been dimming steadily since the Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill last June, flickered anew.

Going into this meeting, there were a few things we already knew about the House GOP’s approach to immigration. Speaker John Boehner has repeatedly said that immigration reform is something he regards as a priority, but he has also, just as adamantly, declared that the House will not take up the Senate bill, or pass something and then negotiate with what the Senate has already passed. Rather than doing one big bill, Boehner says, the House will pass a number of smaller bills, each addressing a single aspect of the problem. (There’s a widespread feeling that ever since Obamacare, voters are suspicious of big laws with lots of different stuff in them. The Senate immigration bill ran 844 pages.)

The meeting on immigration was scheduled for 4:30 p.m. All morning and into the afternoon, Republican members of Congress trouped over to the restaurant to talk to the press, only to be pressed for details on a meeting that hadn’t happened yet and a document they hadn’t seen. Finally, the sheet of principles, stamped “DRAFT,” was handed out and immediately leaked, via email, to pretty much all the reporters who had driven two hours from Washington to get the news in person. (It's now online.)

The section that came under immediate scrutiny was labeled “Individuals Living Outside the Rule of Law”—that is, undocumented immigrants. “There will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws,” it said. But “these persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S.,” provided they aren’t criminals, and once they’ve met a bunch of requirements, including learning English, paying a fine, and being able to support themselves without government assistance. There would also be “specific enforcement triggers” to be met before this process could start.

In a separate section of the bill, labeled “Youth,” the document stated, “It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children through no fault of their own.” That Republican leaders are essentially embracing the Dream Act, which most of the party once vehemently opposed, shows that the GOP has truly moved on the issue.

There’s a lot of important nuance here surrounding the controversial citizenship question. Undocumented immigrants, their families, and their advocates have two basic and related priorities. First, can they stay in the country without fear of deportation? The language here suggests Republicans want most of them to be able to do that, though the “triggers” part gives people pause. (Border enforcement is already at record levels, and the Senate bill would devote still more resources to it.) Second, can they eventually become U.S. citizens? The language here suggests Republicans would let them do that too, by getting in the same “line” as all the foreign residents who have applied to enter the U.S. legally. That’s the difference between “no pathway” and “no special pathway”: The former would, in advocates’ view, create a permanent second class of resident non-citizens, while the latter would merely mean a very long wait.

The principles are important as a signal of where the House might be headed on immigration. But they’re just a draft, and they’re handed down by leadership. More important is what’s happening inside the room where the members have begun to discuss them. Do they rise in revolt against leaders they see as trying to sell them out? (Earlier in the day, the Drudge Report ran a crude Photoshop of Boehner in a sombrero, a mild preview of the reception he's likely to get from talk radio.) Are they cautiously receptive? Do they embrace the ideas embodied in the document?

One conservative congressman ducked out of the discussion to talk to reporters as the sun began to set over the beach chairs on the frozen outdoor deck. Representative James Lankford of Oklahoma declined to characterize his colleagues’ mood. He said a lot of people were asking a lot of questions, and said he had a lot of questions himself, such as the timing and whether the president would cooperate. He emphasized that the principles were just a “starting point” for discussion, and noted there is “no pending piece of legislation” based upon them. “The speaker and the majority leader brought this out, and they’re listening to people right now,” he said. What Boehner hears from the rest of the House Republicans is likely to determine whether immigration reform comes back from the dead.