By Dennis Stinchcomb
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Boehner has again hit the brakes on immigration reform, claiming widespread doubt among House Republicans that President Obama “can be trusted to enforce our laws.” The dramatic about-face came only a week after Boehner and other House leaders released a one-page declaration of “Standards for Immigration Reform,” renewing hope that a legislative compromise could be reached this year. According to press reports, reasons for the reversal included fear among a majority of House Republicans that party infighting over the legalization of the country’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants would disrupt the Republican base and imperil their perceived advantage in the upcoming midterm elections. Despite rhetoric that places the blame on the president’s alleged unwillingness to implement certain unspecified laws, the immediate concern for House Republicans is not one of substance but of timing, according to Republican members.
The Republicans’ “Standards” document endorsed a vaguely defined program that would grant legal status to certain categories of unauthorized immigrants, but stopped short of a special pathway to citizenship like the one outlined in the Senate bill currently at the center of discussion. What they mean by “legal status” remains uncertain. Some Republicans have suggested that newly legalized immigrants would be permanently barred from naturalization; others insist that undocumented immigrants, once legalized, would be able to access normal avenues to citizenship (i.e., work visas, marriage to a citizen spouse, etc.) if available to them. The White House and House Democrats have expressed willingness to listen to any emerging proposal that would offer limited legal status. Many Senate Democrats and immigration advocates argue, however, that legalization without eligibility for naturalization is too great a concession and would create a permanent underclass of millions of legalized immigrants unable to access the rights and privileges of citizenship.
House Republican leaders appear to judge that – at least for now – they cannot sell legalization to their own caucus and seal the deal for immigration reform. Even if they were to reach a consensus that some form of legalization is good, a majority of House Republicans either openly reject any sort of “amnesty” or consider addressing such a controversial issue too risky in an election year, especially before Congressional primaries. If and when the Republican Party is ready to deal, willingness on the part of Democrats to reach a compromise will depend largely on the type of legalization Republicans are prepared to support. If legalization without an explicit pathway to citizenship is the only way to halt record deportations, most Democrats appear willing to make the concession. One thing is clear: clogged immigration courts, nearly 2 million deportations, and $17.9 billion spent annually on immigration enforcement have not translated into the bargaining chip the Obama administration had hoped for – nor have such actions given the lie to Republican accusations that he cannot be trusted to enforce the law. And with no specific proposals on the table, Democrats, the American people, and millions of undocumented immigrants are left guessing what House Republicans mean by legalization.