House Speaker John Boehner has hired a high-profile immigration adviser, his office announced Tuesday, a surprising move that pro-reform and anti-reform advocates alike interpreted as a step toward reform.
Becky Tallent, an immigration policy wonk, is a well-known figure among immigration advocates, having helped spearhead Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform under President George W. Bush. This year, she took a prominent role in the debate as director of immigration policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center, where she organized a team of pro-immigration Republicans and Democrats, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell in an effort to craft a workable policy proposal.
Boehner's decision to bring Tallent on as a top aide is as encouraging to supporters of reform as it is disappointing to opponents. Mark Krikorian of the hardline Center for Immigration Studies derided Tallent as "McCain's amnesty captain" on Twitter and warned Boehner was signalling his intention to push for reform.
Tallent is highly regarded among pro-reform Democratic aides, who have grown increasingly concerned that House Republicans plan to abandon the issue to avoid antagonizing tea-party activists. House leaders have promised action on immigration for the better part of a year, but they have yet to produce even a general set of policy principles for reform, let alone a detailed plan. Boehner in particular has refused to endorse or rule out a path to legal status and citizenship for the estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in America today.
None of that has changed. But Tuesday's move is the most encouraging sign in months that Boehner is at least considering a plausible counter to the Senate's bipartisan bill.
"The speaker remains hopeful that we can enact step-by-step, common-sense immigration reforms -- the kind of reforms the American people understand and support," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. "Becky Tallent, a well-known expert in this field of public policy, is a great addition to our team and that effort."
At least one progressive expert agrees. "I think it’s a clear signal that the speaker is serious about getting this done," Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, told msnbc.
Ana Navarro, a GOP consultant and former aide to McCain who has advocated for reform, said in an email that Boehner "could not have made a better hire," adding that his decision was encouraging.
"You don't hire Becky Tallent if what you want is someone to twiddle her thumbs and just buy you time," she said. "You hire Becky to help craft solutions and turn them into law."