House Republicans aren’t waging a full-blown war on the latest immigration reform push — at least not yet.
In a congressional hearing on Tuesday, several GOP lawmakers suggested that it might be better to start slowly and focus on incrementally fixing the nation’s immigration issues, but they notably refrained from ruling out comprehensive reform outright.
“This issue is too complex and too important to not examine each piece in detail,” said House Judiciary chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.). “We can’t rush to judgment.”
Democrats, however, showed little willingness to compromise on their insistence that any immigration-reform legislation be comprehensive and that illegal immigrants currently in the country receive a path to citizenship.
Immigration reform, argued ranking member John Conyers (D., Mich.), wasn’t a matter that could be handled on a “piecemeal basis.” Conyers also expressed hope that no one would use the term “illegal immigrant” in the hearing, a comment that quickly drew scorn from conservatives.
Representative Zoe Lofgren (D., Calif.), for her part, called giving immigrants legal status and not citizenship “a dangerous path.” American law, Lofgren added dramatically, has never prohibited citizenship to a class of people, “with the exception of slavery and the Chinese Exclusion Act.”
San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, who delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention last year, testified at the hearing that “a path to citizenship is the best option,” while denying that it was an “extreme” viewpoint.
Asked by South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, who heads the Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee, whether he could compromise on this matter, Castro said he supported a requirement that current illegal immigrants fulfill certain conditions (such as paying a fine and waiting their turn) to become citizens. His views generally reflect the sense of congressional Democrats, who are open to bipartisan reform but don’t want to concede much on policy.
What is clear is that there’s virtually no chance for the Senate plan, as currently proposed, to pass in the House. The entire hearing was, in effect, part of a soft pushback by House Republicans on the Senate’s proposal.
Outside the committee room, House GOP power brokers said as much. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), who headed the Republican Study Committee last session, says that he can’t see the Senate plan passing the House as is, but he doesn’t entirely rule out that a version with some changes will pass.
Raul Labrador (R., Idaho) also pushed back against the idea that any comprehensive reform had to put illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. “What they want is to come out of the shadows,” Labrador said of illegal immigrants, adding that they wanted legal status and the privileges that included. “Not very many people told me, ‘I want to be a citizen.’”
House GOP leadership is taking a cautious approach. House Minority Leader Eric Cantor told CBS on Tuesday that he “really admired Senator Rubio and the kinds of things he’s standing for,” and that “he’s moving in the right direction.” But Cantor refused to endorse Rubio’s plan.
Labrador told reporters later that one area of compromise between Republicans and Democrats might be the DREAM Act, designed to help college-age illegals who were brought to this country as children. “I think there is probably a lot of open-mindedness on the House side, to do something for them, and maybe even give them a pathway [to citizenship],” he said “But that’s different than the adults who came here illegally, and actually violated the law.” Cantor also suggested that Republicans would be open to some kind of legislation regarding DREAM in his speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute. “A good place to start is with the kids,” Cantor said. “One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.”
In the hearing, Labrador — who has become a point man for House GOP opposition to the Senate’s bipartisan plan — called on immigration-reform advocates to consider whether they wanted a “political solution or a policy solution.”
“If we want a political solution, you guys are going to insist on a pathway to citizenship, you’re going to beat Republicans on the head on this issue,” he said. “But if we want a policy solution, I think there’s a goodwill here in the House of Representatives for us to come together, actually have a pragmatic solution to the current problem that we have, and solve and modernize the immigration system for years to come.”
The hearing was only the first step in what is likely to be a long debate in the lower chamber about the Rubio-backed effort, which still faces an unsure future in the Senate. House Republicans are open to the discussion, but many conservatives are far from ready to embrace the Senate’s plan.