Immigration reform: Amid GOP reservations, signs of flexibility

A hearing Tuesday offers a first look at how the GOP-led House might approach immigration reform, an issue that has vaulted to the top of Washington's agenda. Democrats were fairly pleased with what they saw.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
After delivering a policy speech on immigration reform at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Tuesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., talks to Fiona Zhou, a graduate student in systems engineering at George Washington University originally from Shaoxing, China,

Republicans remain conflicted about reforming America’s immigration system, but judging from remarks by House majority leader Eric Cantor and the tone of the Republican-led House’s first hearing on immigration, they appear willing to join the immigration debate rather than try to short-circuit it. 

In a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, Mr. Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, offered support for the broad contours of the DREAM Act, long-stalled legislation that would allow the children of undocumented immigrants a special path to legal status in the US – and eventually citizenship. 

Cantor, one of the party’s foremost conservatives, voted against the DREAM Act in 2010. 

“One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents,” he said Tuesday. “It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.”

In the House Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, conservative lawmakers expressed concern about the federal government’s poor record on immigration enforcement. Many spoke of the 1986 reform law, which legalized many more undocumented people than lawmakers then had expected and which proved to be ineffective at stemming the tide of illegal entrants despite, for example, employer sanctions for immigration violations and new border-security measures. Some lawmakers blame that law for helping to create a situation that resulted in a renewed inflow of undocumented individuals, now estimated to number 11 million. 

But GOP lawmakers balanced their outrage at the Obama administration and at what they see as the US government’s lax enforcement of immigration laws with some hopeful notes. 

“In the minds of many, Mr. Chairman, the country got amnesty [in 1986] but is still waiting 25 years later on the border security and the employment verification,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, chairman of the Subcommittee on Immigration, addressing Judiciary chair Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R) of Virginia. “So here we are, back again, asking our fellow citizens to trust us. And many, despite ourselves, Mr. Chairman, remain open to legislative expressions of humanity and grace, but they will be watching skeptically to see if we are serious about enforcing the rule of law.”

That attitude was music to the ears of long-time immigration reform advocates such as Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, who put his 20 years of seniority on the Financial Services Committee on hold to work on immigration legislation in the Judiciary Committee during this Congress. 

“When subcommittee Chairman Gowdy spoke and he spoke about a just and compassionate [solution] – those were words that he used – I’m hearing someone I can work with because that’s what I want,” Mr. Gutierrez told reporters off the House floor during a break in the hearing. 

But significant issues need to be resolved. Mr. Gowdy and Rep. Raúl Labrador (R) of Idaho in particular dug into the delicate issue of whether the nation’s undocumented millions should be granted a path to US citizenship at all. 

A path to US citizenship – what some conservatives deride as “amnesty” for lawbreakers and what liberals call “earned citizenship” for the fines, English-language requirements, and time needed to obtain a US passport – is a key demand of President Obama and Democratic lawmakers, including Gutierrez. They say relegating millions of people to sub-citizen status would create a “permanent underclass,” as Gutierrez often explains it, on par with the socially restive groups of unassimilated immigrants in many European cities. 

Gowdy wondered whether Republicans were negotiating with themselves in calling any route to citizenship a compromise at all.

“A compromise between what?” Gowdy asked. “I don't hear anyone advocating for full-fledged citizenship without background checks or full-fledged citizenship without back taxes or full-fledged citizenship without fines.”

Mr. Labrador, a former immigration lawyer, painted Democrats’ pursuit of a path to citizenship as a political ploy that would bait Republicans into defeating an immigration reform proposal, thus giving the GOP another black eye with many Latino voters. Instead, Labrador argued, Democrats should be willing to accept something short of citizenship to pass a bill that includes desperately needed reforms to the legal immigration system, border security, and immigration enforcement. 

“The question that I have for you and for all advocates of immigration reform is whether you want a political solution or a policy solution. If we want a political solution, [Democrats] are going to insist on [a] pathway to citizenship,” he said. “You're going to beat Republicans over the head on this issue. But if we want a policy solution, I think there's good will here in the House of Representatives for us to come together.”

But for Gutierrez, even these objections to the keystone of the immigration reform debate were a sign of hope. “Today, we’re debating citizenship. What did we stop discussing? That [the undocumented] have to leave. They're staying,” said Gutierrez, part of a bipartisan group of House members meeting in private to craft immigration legislation.

The House effort comes after a bipartisan group of eight senators offered immigration reform principles in January.

Overall, the tone of the Tuesday's House hearing was one of inquiry, with several members forgoing the usual grandstanding to ask the panelists how to fix America's immigration system. 

“Why should this committee, why should this Congress, pass comprehensive immigration reform without having the assurance that these laws would be enforced?” asked Chairman Goodlatte. “What would that assurance be?”   

In closing, Goodlatte offered what could have been the tagline to the entire hearing for fellow Republicans. “Fool me once, shame on you,” he said. “Fool me twice? Shame on me.”

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