On immigration reform, House GOP plays hardball on 'enforcement'

House Republicans open their bid to overhaul the US immigration system by giving local law officers more authority to enforce immigration laws, in sharp contrast with the Senate bill.

Susan Walsch/AP
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia (l.) and Rep. George Holding (R) of North Carolina (r.) listen to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington during a committee hearing on immigration reform.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is expected to hurl a brushback pitch to congressional Democrats on Tuesday when his committee takes up a tough immigration enforcement measure as the House's first official step toward immigration reform.

Specifically, the measure would empower state and local governments to take part in enforcing federal immigration law, and it is expected to pass. 

Why is Representative Goodlatte taking a step that many Democrats on his committee and immigration advocates see as provocative? Just like a fastball, high and inside, it’s about sending a signal.

Enforcing immigration laws in America’s interior “is the place where we think the Senate bill is absolutely the weakest, and it is the place where, in 1986, there was an easy pathway to citizenship for 3 million people and then enforcement never really happened,” says Goodlatte, referring to the last year in which Congress approved comprehensive immigration reform legislation. “We hope this [topic] will be highlighted because we think it’s been neglected in other places,” he adds.

While Tuesday’s first pitch is hard to handle and is generating a storm of vituperation from the left, Goodlatte says Republicans aren't singularly interested in hardball. In fact, in the weeks to come, Goodlatte plans to move a bill offering a way for some 11 million undocumented people already in the US to become permanent residents and citizens, a central component for immigration reform for his Democratic colleagues.

In the Senate's comprehensive reform bill, a nationwide E-Verify system for determining a prospective employee’s true identity is the main interior enforcement measure.

By contrast, the House SAFE Act, cosponsored by Goodlatte and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, will allow state and local public safety authorities to take on some immigration-enforcement roles. (Other provisions include beefing up the weapons and body armor available to some federal immigration enforcers.) The legislation will be amended and probably approve on Tuesday morning in a panel that tilts heavily toward Republicans.

That’s the controversial approach that had hard-edged application by state governments such as Arizona’s. The state’s immigration law, known as SB 1070, was struck down in part by the US Supreme Court last year because it attempted to overstep federal immigration authority. GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney endorsed the Arizona law as a model for national immigration policy and was summarily walloped by President Obama among Hispanic voters.

Goodlatte says he understands the passions such proposals stir in Democrats – but that avoiding a repetition of the 1986 immigration amnesty burns just as hot for Republicans.

Whereas Democrats and immigrant advocates see the House bill as a back-to-the-future moment for Republican politics, Goodlatte sees delegating some enforcement authority away from the federal government as a check on future presidents of either party.

“If we’re going to have meaningful immigration reform, it’s got to include a strong enforcement component, that doesn’t allow the president of the United States ... [the ability to] flip a switch and say, ‘We’re not going to enforce this or that area of immigration law,’ ” he says.

Will Goodlatte's pitch empty the proverbial benches for an all-out brawl? No punches are being thrown yet, but Democrats and immigration reform advocates are snarling at the lip of the dugout.

Some advocates say Republicans just didn’t learn their lesson from the 2012 election, with Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democratic Network, calling the House bill “an ideological necessity for those on the right” who are fighting to rebuild Mr. Romney’s immigration strategy of “self-deportation” from the ashes of its charring at the Supreme Court and at the ballot box.

Some say Republicans are simply staking out a position for maximum negotiating leverage if or when both chambers pass immigration legislation.

“I understand the political fallout [from the immigration reform debate], that some of these folks feel like they need cover,” said Tony Martinez, mayor of Brownsville, Texas, a city near the US-Mexico border, in a conference call with reporters on Monday. “I certainly understand the political aspect of it. That’s fine, get it out there. I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”

But what really concerns Democrats is that the first bill may be a sign of things to come: that is, of a House GOP majority interested only in moving measures that are anathema to the left and that are aimed at blowing up the fragile bipartisan détente over immigration issues on Capitol Hill.

“The approach this bill takes is dangerous and wrong, and I hope today’s hearing is not a sign of the direction in which this committee is heading,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California, one of seven lawmakers engaged in a bipartisan effort to craft a comprehensive immigration fix in the House, at a hearing on the bill last week.

On Monday, Goodlatte said fears that the immigration process is heading in a partisan direction are misguided.

Having already written bills on many of the major pieces of immigration reform through stand-alone measures – E-Verify, border security, agricultural workers, high-skilled workers – Goodlatte says several more bills are in the works and will pass through his committee in weeks to come.

The next batch of bills will include one to provide a framework for legalizing the nation’s 11 million undocumented residents, he says.

Goodlatte, who believes that such a framework could end in citizenship for some of the undocumented, says he’s looking to Representative Lofgren’s bipartisan working group of seven lawmakers to help strike the balance on a pathway to citizenship.

But without an agreement from the bipartisan House immigration group – which has neither broken up nor yet produced a final bill, despite hints of either outcome for several weeks – Goodlatte is left waiting.

“We don’t have the vehicle” to move forward with, he says.

Whatever happens with the bipartisan group, however, he says he will eventually find a legislative ride for the path to citizenship.

You can’t win, after all, throwing only high and inside.

“We are definitely interested in addressing that area as well, because we don’t think that [the interior enforcement] provisions that we’re working on in this bill, given the Democrats’ resistance to them, are likely to become law unless they are a part of a larger overall agreement,” Goodlatte says. “That’s been the plan from the outset, but exactly how the pieces will fit together is still not known.” 

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