Democrats must decide how far to bend on immigration reform

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Congressional Democrats and advocates for immigration reform will have to decide how much to bend as they await proposals from House Republicans that are likely to fall far short of what they have demanded.

House GOP leaders plan to release as soon as next week their principles for rewriting the nation’s immigration laws, a document that could be followed by a series of legislative proposals.

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The principles are expected to be broad-brush in nature and emphasize border and interior security measures, but they are likely to include a first-ever official House GOP endorsement of legal status for many of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

Left-leaning advocates say they are encouraged by the move and view it as another critical step in the GOP’s shift on immigration over the last several years. 

“We feel like the dynamics in the House are definitely tilting in our favor right now,” said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

At the same time, Fitz and other advocates are preparing for the likelihood they will be frustrated both by the substance and the lack of detail in the GOP document. 

Republicans are expected to push for granting more power to state and local authorities to enforce immigration laws, a move that Democrats have long opposed. And while the principles may propose legal status for illegal immigrants, Republicans in the House are against creating a new pathway to citizenship, and they want legalization tied to stronger enforcement triggers than were included in the bill the Senate passed last year.

Lorella Praeli, advocacy and policy director for United We Dream, said the push for more triggers along the path to citizenship was “a cause for concern,” but she stopped short of drawing a clear line.

“I don’t think we can sit here and lower our standards when we haven’t seen any proposals,” she said.

The Senate bill would have allowed many illegal immigrants to gain citizenship within 13 years, but any House proposal is likely to have a longer and narrower path.

On a conference call with reporters Friday, Fitz said the triggers would be judged by whether they were achievable or whether they were “blocking people from being protected.”

A GOP leadership aide said the principles could be released next week or closer to when House Republicans gather in Cambridge, Md., for their annual policy retreat. Immigration will be a hot topic at the conference, which could go a long way toward determining whether there is enough support to bring legislation to the floor.

Leadership aides have emphasized that the document is not being drafted by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) but by a group of members that includes the Speaker’s top lieutenants, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Republicans like Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.) who have been involved in repeated efforts to overhaul the immigration system.

Still, advocates say they are heartened that Boehner has stepped in to direct the process after giving wide latitude in 2013 to Goodlatte, who they do not view as an ally.

“Leaving it to Chairman Goodlatte to try to get to yes was never a viable option,” Fitz said.

The advocates are also placing their trust in Rebecca Talent, the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who Boehner hired to advise him on immigration late last year.

Even if Republicans can get the majority of their conference that Boehner is requiring to support immigration legislation, they will need Democratic votes to help overcome conservative opposition and push any proposals over the top.

Like the advocates, key House Democrats are welcoming the movement from Republicans but say they will wait to see actual legislative proposals before committing to help them.

“I think we have a very realistic chance to legalize undocumented immigrants, put millions on a path to citizenship, stop the deportations that are brutalizing immigrant communities, and restore legal immigration if we work together in a bipartisan fashion in Washington,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said in a statement Friday.