Last year, senators working on immigration reform followed a fairly traditional path. Democrats negotiated with Republicans, while working in consultation with the White House, business leaders, labor leaders, immigrant advocates, and the religious community. The process produced a popular proposal that, according to independent estimates, would boost economic growth, reduce the deficit, and offer a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
This year, the House is following a less traditional path. House GOP leaders have already rejected the popular and bipartisan Senate legislation, refusing to even allow members to vote on it. Instead, they have an outline of sorts, which is the result of negotiations between Republicans and other Republicans.
House Republican leaders support an immigration reform package that would provide legal status for many of the nation’s 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants, offer a pathway to citizenship to undocumented youth, bolster border security, and expand legal immigration, according to a draft framework released on Thursday.House Speaker John Boehner unveiled the principles to his caucus in a meeting Thursday at their annual retreat in Cambridge, Md.
The entirety of the document is available online here (pdf).
It’s important to note that scrutinizing the new Republican plan is difficult since there is no actual plan. What’s more, at this point, there’s no bill and no promise of a bill. In policy analysis, the details make all of the difference, but House GOP leaders have chosen to deliberately steer clear of any specifics, offering just 858 words on a one-page piece of paper.
What’s more, Boehner told his members, “These standards are as far as we are willing to go.” It was a curious point to emphasize, because the comments seemed to suggest House Republicans, after having negotiated exclusively with one another, are will to compromise no further. Complicating matters, the Speaker will go no further than these “standards,” but because the document is lacking in substantive details, no one is entirely sure what these standards mean.
The upside, however, is that the statement of principles at least opens the door to the possibility of a constructive process.
Indeed, proponents of reform tend to see yesterday’s developments as a modest step forward. House Republicans have effectively changed their posture from “We’re going to kill immigration reform,” to “We’ll consider passing immigration reform if it carefully caters to these principles.”
The document is worth reading closely, and there are some key angles to keep an eye on as the process moves forward.
Foremost on the minds of many, of course, is whether undocumented immigrants who are already in the United States might be able to gain citizenship status under the House Republicans’ approach. The answer is, well, complicated.
For undocumented minors, the House GOP plan roughly embraces the ideas of the DREAM Act, including an opportunity to earn citizenship status. For adults, however, Republicans insist, “There will be no special path to citizenship.” Undocumented immigrants would, however, be eligible for legal status, allowing them to live and work in the United States without the threat of deportation.
No one is altogether sure, however, what “special” means in this context. Greg Sargent has reported several times that the ambiguity of the phrase is important and may even offer hope for reform proponents. The word “special,” Greg has explained, “does not preclude the undocumented getting citizenship eventually.” The New Democrat Network’s Simon Rosenberg added, “The House Republicans are talking about a path to legalization, but this does not contemplate a permanent second class status.”
If and when a bill takes shape, watch for the specific language on this. Will the legislation say undocumented immigrants can never become gain citizenship status?
The other key element to keep an eye on is the notion of “triggers.” Yesterday’s document specifically says border security “must come first,” adding in the statement’s very final sentence that “none of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented.”
This raises an alarming possibility: Republicans will implement the border-security provisions they like, waiting for impossible-to-meet triggers to be reached, all the while leaving millions in limbo. Again, the details will make all the difference.
In the meantime, at least a debate can begin in earnest, and GOP leaders, by relying so heavily on ambiguities, have left themselves some wiggle room for legislative talks.