Boehner hires ex-McCain chief of staff to lead House immigration efforts

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Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has hired a veteran expert on immigration policy, a move that could signal a renewed House effort to act on the issue in 2014.

Rebecca Tallent, director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, will start her new job as assistant to the Speaker on Wednesday. Her arrival was one of several personnel moves Boehner announced Tuesday.

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Tallent previously served as chief of staff to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and was deeply involved in efforts to pass immigration reform in 2006 and 2007.

Advocates for immigration reform cheered the hiring of Tallent, viewing it as a sign that Boehner is serious about pursuing legislation in 2014.

“She is bright, knowledgeable. She is as good as anybody in the city. Period. End of story,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart  (R-Fla.) said. “It’s a huge, huge get for Speaker Boehner.”

“She’s not going to be doing this if it’s going to be a waste of her time,” he added.

Opponents of a broad immigration reform saw the move as significant and a cause for concern.

In a series of Twitter posts, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, labeled Tallent a supporter of “amnesty” and wondered if her hiring was “a slap in the face” by Boehner of Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and the Judiciary Committee, which has been working on a series of piecemeal immigration reform bills.

Goodlatte, the panel’s chairman, had retained aides who worked for his predecessor, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), an ardent foe of efforts to increase legal immigration.

Boehner has repeatedly expressed his commitment to tackling immigration reform, but he has faced mounting criticism from advocates, including some Republicans, over the House’s inaction on the issue so far. While the Senate passed a comprehensive bill in June, the House has not voted on any immigration legislation this year, and Boehner has not said how or when the House would move on the issue, other than to stress that the lower chamber would address immigration in a series of bills, not one large overhaul.

“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.”

The staffer who had previously handled immigration policy in the Speaker’s office, Kate Lukeman, left to take another job a few weeks ago, Steel said.

Former Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.), a co-chairman of the think tank’s immigration task force, said Boehner’s decision to bring in Tallent was “affirmation of his strong desire to move legislation in 2014.”

Democrats, who have taken a “we’ll-believe-it-when-we-see-it” attitude toward Boehner’s immigration pronouncements, responded more cautiously.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said.

Democrats have been frustrated that with a couple notable exceptions, House Republicans have few staffers with experience working on comprehensive immigration reform.

“She knows the issue, she is very tough, and she knows how to get things done in a bipartisan manner, which are all signs that the Speaker is taking immigration reform seriously,” one Democratic aide said.

At the same time, Democrats say they have seen little sign in recent weeks that Republicans are moving closer to an immigration push. The Judiciary Committee on Tuesday held a hearing targeting what Republicans charged was a lack of enforcement by the Obama administration. After passing a series of immigration bills through the committee on party-line votes over the summer, Goodlatte has not advanced any bills dealing with the legal status of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

Tallent did not respond to a email seeking comment.

In an op-ed for The Christian Science Monitor in early November, she advocated a House process that hews closely to the piecemeal approach Boehner has said he prefers.

“For the House to pass immigration reform, it needs an opportunity to work through its own process, moving smaller, piecemeal bills that members feel they have the opportunity to review and allow their constituents to vet,” Tallent wrote.

Immigration reform activists have drawn increased attention in recent weeks, holding a fast and camping out on the National Mall.

President Obama, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other top Democrats have recognized their efforts. Activists have also hounded Boehner in particular, seeking meetings in his office and, at one point, approaching him with a video camera while he was eating breakfast in a local diner.

Advocates for an immigration overhaul see a narrow window for the House to act in early 2014 before the midterm election campaigns heat up. Obama is expected to push for immigration reform in his State of the Union address in January.

This story was posted at 1:54 p.m. and updated at 8 p.m.