Boehner must decide on immigration

The release of House Republican principles on immigration reform this week will ignite a contentious debate within the GOP, forcing Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to make a series of crucial decisions in the coming months.

Boehner and other senior members are planning to present the document at the House GOP’s annual retreat on Thursday in Cambridge, Md., and the reaction of the rank and file will likely determine how aggressively the leadership will press the issue during an election year. 

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But if GOP leaders do move forward, they would do so with a series of discrete bills rather than the kind of comprehensive measure the Senate passed in June.

The principles are not expected to be long or overly detailed, but they will mark a major shift for the House GOP leadership by endorsing legalization, under certain conditions, for millions of immigrants in the country illegally. 

Coming out of the retreat, here are questions Boehner must weigh on immigration. 

Green light for legislation?

The Speaker has said the House must tackle immigration reform, but it’s no guarantee that the leadership will go any further than releasing broad ideas if members react negatively this week. Asked on Tuesday if he could guarantee the GOP would move forward with legislation this year, Boehner pointedly declined to say.

“We’re going to outline our standards, principles for immigration reform and have a conversation with our members, and once that conversation is over, we’ll have a better feel for what our members have in mind,” he said during a press conference. 

Many in the party have shifted on the question of legal status or citizenship for illegal immigrants in the years since House conservatives thwarted former President George W. Bush’s push for a comprehensive overhaul.

But deep divisions remain in the party. Conservatives opposed to action are organizing to defeat any push by the leadership, and even lawmakers who worked on immigration legislation in 2013 have suggested it is foolhardy to forge ahead in the heat of a midterm election under a Democratic president that Republicans distrust.

Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a conservative who left bipartisan negotiations last year, said in an interview on Monday that Republicans should not pursue immigration legislation that would divide the conference.

Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, said the consensus from the rank and file was unlikely to be a clear “stop” or “go.”

“They’re not going to get a flashing bright green,” said Jacoby, a longtime GOP advocate for immigration reform. “But I don’t think it’ll be bright red either.”

Legal status and triggers

The most contentious area of immigration reform is the question of legal status and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Democrats are insisting on an “achievable” path to citizenship for most of the 11 million estimated to be in the U.S., but Republicans in the House are adamantly opposed to carving out a new, “special” pathway separate from the one that is currently available through legal channels. 

Reform advocates believe there is a way to satisfy both sides that would be reflected in the GOP principles, but conservative critics of an immigration overhaul are likely to label any offer of legalization for people in the country illegally as “amnesty.”

Boehner has said little about the question of legal status, other than to endorse a path to citizenship for children who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. The principles are likely to call for specific triggers on border and interior security that would occur simultaneously with the process by which immigrants can gain legal status, such as the achievement of certain enforcement metrics and the implementation of a new E-Verify system for employers. 

But if the triggers significantly delay the initial legalization process too long, Democrats will oppose the proposal and doom its chances on the floor.

Timing of reform

The leadership must decide whether to move quickly to bring immigration bills to the floor in February or March or wait until later in the spring, after primary election filing deadlines have passed in many states. Because of the way many safe districts are drawn, House Republicans face a greater political risk on immigration from primary challenges on the right than they do in a general election against Democrats.

That question has been the subject of debate inside GOP leadership meetings. Reform advocates like Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) are pushing for quick action, but another battle over the debt ceiling and the need for legislation to go through committees could cause delays and render the decision moot. Five bills on security issues and creating a guest-worker program have advanced through committees already, but none address legalization for children or adults.

Jacoby predicted that the leadership would wait to send legislation to the Judiciary Committee until shortly before it would hit the House floor, citing concerns that a longer window would create a target for opponents.

Which bills, and in what order?

If Boehner decides to press ahead, he and other leaders will have to decide which of the numerous piecemeal immigration bills to bring to the floor and — perhaps just as importantly — in what order they will come up. He will need to hold together a centrist coalition of Republicans and Democrats to get most of the proposals across the line. Still, the vote breakdown is likely to vary among the different bills dealing with security, legalization, a guest-worker program and increased high-skilled worker visas.

One likely contender is a border security bill that won unanimous support in the Homeland Security Committee last year. But all four of the proposals coming out of the Judiciary Committee passed along party-line votes. Democrats could support bills creating a guest-worker program and new high-skilled visas if they have the opportunity to vote for legalization, but they consider one the Judiciary proposals, the SAFE Act, a poison pill because it deputizes local law enforcement officers to enforce immigration laws.

Reform advocates think it’s likely that the immigration bills would be clustered for votes over a period of one or two weeks to maintain the necessary coalitions, and Republicans could craft a procedural rule mandating that they be sent to the Senate as a package, although that would likely face opposition from conservatives.