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Boehner: GOP immigration plan isn't 'amnesty'

Speaker John Boehner is pushing back against conservative critics of the House GOP's immigration framework.
John Boehner smiles as walks to a strategy meeting with fellow Republicans, Feb. 4, 2014.
John Boehner smiles as walks to a strategy meeting with fellow Republicans, Feb. 4, 2014.

House Speaker John Boehner is defending new Republican immigration principles from critics on the right who complain it rewards illegal immigration and plays into President Obama's hands. 

On Tuesday, Boehner's office released a Q&A explaining why the speaker had decided to pursue immigration reform and how it would address major concerns within his party. 

"The focus of this Congress should be on creating jobs and growing our economy," the document reads. "Reforms to our immigration system will accomplish those goals and address a serious national security issue."

The immigration principles, released at the House GOP's retreat in Maryland last week, call for a revamped legal immigration system for both high skilled and temporary workers, new border security and enforcement measures, and -- most controversially -- a program to legalize qualifying undocumented immigrants.  

The most common issue House Republicans have raised with passing reform this year is that they fear Obama will bank the legalization part and then unilaterally refuse to enforce the security measures attached to it. This complaint usually has less to do with immigration, specifically, where the administration has presided over record deportations, and more with a broader critique of the Obama administration's use of executive action on issues like health care, where the White House delayed a mandate for businesses to buy insurance. 

But while some Republicans argue that their distrust of Obama is reason to punt on reform for now, even if they agree with it on the policy merits, Boehner affirms their premise to make the opposite case. Immigration reform is worth passing, he argues, because Republicans need a new law that constrains Obama more explicitly. 

"Unfortunately, the Senate bill would allow this and future administrations to circumvent the Congress and decide unilaterally how to enforce our immigration laws," the Q&A reads. "As part of its step-by-step approach, the House would eliminate the ability for any administration to arbitrarily decide which laws to enforce."  

This isn't just a theoretical concern. The president has already deferred deportations, over Republican objections, for young undocumented immigrants who would gain legal status under the DREAM Act. Under pressure from immigration activists, Obama hinted last week that he might consider blocking deportations for larger groups of undocumented immigrants if Congress fails to act. 

Boehner also takes on the argument that legalization constitutes "amnesty" for immigration violators. 

"Just the opposite is true," the document reads. "Right now, there are few, if any, consequences for living here illegally. What we have now is amnesty."

It goes on to argue that any legalization would be earned through admitting past wrongdoing, paying back taxes and fines, learn English and American civics, and have to support themselves without federal help. There would be no "special path to citizenship," although the actual details on how citizenship would be handled under the Republican plan are still unclear. 

The Q&A also raises what could end up being the biggest disagreement between Democrats and Republicans in negotiating a final deal: How quickly immigrants could apply for legal status. Democrats and immigration activists have argued that the process needs to begin almost immediately. But Republicans are worried it would give the administration too much leeway to slow walk the security portions of the bill and want to tie it to unnamed enforcement triggers. While the language in the framework is sitll somewhat vague on this issue, Boehner reiterated its importance on Tuesday.

"None of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers on border security and other measures have been met," the Q&A reads. "The Senate bill, on the other hand, starts registering illegal immigrants virtually immediately after passage, does not require them to admit they broke any laws, only prohibits access to public benefits during a probationary period."

For the most part, Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress have greeted Boehner's immigration framework with cautious praise. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted against the bipartisan Senate bill, told reporters on Tuesday he foresaw an "irresolvable conflict" between the House and Senate that would prevent them from reaching a deal this year. 

"The Senate insists on comprehensive; the House says it won't go to conference with the Senate on comprehensive; it wants to look at step by step," McConnell said. "I don't see how you get to an outcome this year with the two bodies in such a different place."

While immigration reform is a tough slog, McConnell's reasoning is a bit odd given that top Democrats have already suggested they're willing to follow the House's lead and pass immigration reform as a series of bills. In fact, Boehner paid Obama a rare complement in November for publicly acquiescing to his demand for a "step by step" approach.