GOP bill highlights Republican rift on immigration

A new immigration reform proposal by first-term Rep. María Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) is further exposing a split within the GOP between those who want the party to lead on immigration reform and hard-liners increasingly vocal against immigration as a whole.

Salazar’s proposal would ultimately grant legal status to a majority of undocumented immigrants in the United States, a conclusion many other House Republicans are unlikely to get behind.

While the bill has tough enforcement provisions meant to attract GOP votes, it is unlikely to be supported by the many conservative Republicans who say providing legal status to undocumented immigrants amounts to “amnesty” for lawbreakers.   

Salazar at Wednesday’s press conference announcing the bill acknowledged the tough road ahead within the GOP.  

“I have asked some of my colleagues that — to explain to me and to give me a rigorous definition of what [amnesty] means. No one has been able to give it to me,” she said.  

The issue of how to tackle the nation’s famously dysfunctional immigration system has long been a third rail on Capitol Hill, frustrating attempts by leaders in both parties stretching back more than three decades. It’s unlikely to become easier if the GOP regains control of the House after this year’s midterm elections, especially with the specter of another Trump administration a possibility. 

Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, is also warning that conservatives like himself won’t support any immigration reform proposals — let alone one that includes a pathway to citizenship — without separate actions addressing the border first. 

“We can have debates and discussions about what best to do and what our policies should be on who wants to legally, lawfully enter our country and what to do with those who are here illegally,” Good said. “But doggonit secure the border. And that should be a separate discussion.”

But longtime proponents of immigration reform say that equation is upside-down; they say reasonable immigration pathways are necessary to successfully regulate the flow of people at the border.

“Until you fix the legal immigration system, then you cannot have a secure border. I mean, they go hand in hand, whether one likes it or not — and then there are people on either side, either party, who don’t like the other part of that equation,” said Mario H. López, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a conservative advocacy group.

Salazar’s bill includes a trigger mechanism to hold off on granting immigration benefits until the Department of Homeland Security certifies the border has been secured, but those provisions have failed to sway immigration hard-liners.

“The Salazar bill is bad policy and political malpractice. It’s one thing to argue that such a proposal is the right policy on the merits — it isn’t. But it’s another to depict it as the magic key to unlocking the Latino vote. That idea was rejected long ago,” said RJ Hauman, head of government relations and communications at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a restrictionist group that holds considerable sway over immigration hawks in the GOP.

Salazar touted the bill as a way for Republicans to expand their inroads with Hispanic voters, but also as an economic imperative for the United States.

“There’s a very big movement within the Republican Party understanding that this is the invitation letter for the browns, the Hispanics, the Latinos, you know, the largest minority in the country, welcoming them into the into the Republican Party, because we know that we need them in order to continue improving the American economy,” she said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also touted the need to reform immigration policies to help the economy at a time when businesses are craving workers.

“This bill would help many companies that are struggling to meet their critical workforce needs. We look forward to working with her and her colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives to pass these commonsense reforms to our nation’s broken immigration system,” said Neil Bradley, the executive vice president and chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a statement.

Such views no longer resonate with much of a GOP base defined by Trump.

“The Chamber of Commerce’s position is no longer the majority position within the Republican Party,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.

“Pre-Biden, you might have had more Republicans on the Chamber of Commerce sort of point of view. Unfortunately, with what’s going on under Biden in the understanding that administrations can unilaterally dramatically affect the numbers of illegal immigrants, that scares a lot of folks,” he said.

Rep. Dan Newhouse (Wash.), a moderate Republican who’s sponsored legislation providing legal protections to agriculture workers, has sponsored Salazar’s proposal, in part because it includes significant parts of his bill.

“Largely, I want to keep the conversation going,” he said.

But Newhouse was quick to acknowledge the difficulty of convincing his conservative colleagues to support a comprehensive reform package — even one with tough border security measures — without first securing the border in an independent bill. 

“The situation at the border is going to be a challenge for us,” Newhouse said. “While that’s happening, it’s hard for anyone to support immigration reform measures.” 

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) is another supporter of the farm worker protections, arguing that any immigration bill must meet a bare standard: “It has to help the country.” But he also lamented that conservatives in his own conference have frequently been an impediment to getting that proposal enacted. 

“These ag laborers who have been here for decades, in some cases — the growers know them, they appreciate them. There’s got to be a way to finally get them out of illegal status to legal status that doesn’t give away the store on citizenship,” LaMalfa said. “It’s misunderstood by some on my conservative side. I don’t know if it’s politics, or whatever.”

In another sign of the obstacles facing Salazar’s effort, Democratic immigration reformers are already panning her proposal as a political guise designed merely to help build Hispanic support for certain vulnerable Republican incumbents in November’s midterm elections. 

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), for one, dismissed the proposal as a bad-faith attempt by Republicans to create appearances that they’re working to fix the broken immigration system without advancing legislation that would actually do so. 

“It’s the same thing that happened under Paul Ryan,” Gallego said, referring to the former Republican Speaker who had tried and failed to adopt immigration reforms. “They just want to make it look like they’re doing something, but they can’t corral the conservative support. … It’ll never happen.”

Salazar said she hopes her bill will attract both Republicans and Democrats to the negotiating table, but recognized it faces long odds.

“The one who knows the answer is the Lord Almighty. He is the only one who knows what’s going to happen,” said Salazar.

“Let’s take politics out of it. Let’s do a solution, let’s seal the border and then give dignity to those who are here already,” she added.