House Republican leaders plan to unveil their principles and outline their priorities on the politically potent issue of immigration reform this week, as President Barack Obama revisits the issue in his State of the Union address.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, expects the outline will help gauge which pieces of reform — increased border security, changes to the visa system, a pathway to citizenship and others — can win support from his House Republican Conference. Boehner intends to consider a series of immigration bills rather than the comprehensive legislation passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate last summer.
Immigrant advocates are watching the process closely, hoping it leads to a breakthrough after years of disappointment.
But activists, like the Republicans, are also taking another hard look at the issue to see if they can live with whatever compromise emerges. And they are increasingly divided over whether they will continue to demand a bill that includes a pathway to citizenship for the millions of immigrants in the United States illegally or will settle for something short of that goal.
A House GOP plan almost certainly won’t go as far as the 13-year “special pathway” to citizenship in the Senate bill. For many Democrats and immigration activists, the exclusion of a pathway to citizenship could be a deal-breaker.
But others, including some “dreamers” — immigrants who as children were brought into the United States without authorization — are willing to embrace proposals that would end the constant threat of deportation of family members.
One widely discussed idea would offer probationary status to undocumented immigrants, then allow them to pursue citizenship through existing channels, such as by having relatives or employers sponsor them.
An analysis released this month by the nonpartisan National Foundation for American Policy said such a plan could legalize 4.4 million to 6.5 million undocumented immigrants, compared with the 8 million who would be eligible under the Senate’s approach.
Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., said he also has heard that some Republicans are exploring whether to allow dreamers to become citizens while requiring their parents’ generation to settle for legal status.
“I posed that question to parents of dreamers and, interestingly enough, some of the parents have said, ‘Hey, as long as I can stay here and my family’s not going to be broken up, maybe it’s something I can live with, but I would hope that my children would have the ability to become citizens,’ ” said Pastor, a longtime immigration-reform supporter.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., a proponent of immigration reform, said he remains committed to passing a bill that includes a pathway to citizenship but is open to discussing a compromise that would allow undocumented immigrants to become citizens through existing channels.
He said he would not vote for a bill that allows undocumented immigrants to gain legal status but prohibits them from becoming citizens, even if that means not passing a bill this year. “That’s a key word for me: prohibition,” Grijalva said.
Barring legalized immigrants from ever becoming citizens would set a troubling precedent, he said.
“I can’t think of a time … where there was an outright prohibition on a group of people” where the law said “you can stay here, you can have legal status, you can work, you won’t be deported, but you will never reach a state of citizenship.”
Without the text of the House GOP principles, let alone an actual legalization bill, some reform supporters say it is premature to get worked up over hypothetical scenarios.
Pro-reform Republicans are in a tricky position because they must craft bills that could win the support of a majority of the GOP caucus as well as attract enough Democratic votes to win House passage. Then they would have to come to terms with Senate Democrats on legislation that Obama could sign.
House Republicans are expected to hold a deeper discussion on the principles at a three-day retreat this week in Cambridge, Md.
Likewise, Democrats inevitably will have to make some concessions to the GOP-run House in order to get any results this year.
Election-year partisanship also could complicate the immigration-reform push.
“I’m sure we’re going to have disagreements on the substance, once the principles are unveiled, and that’s OK,” said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “That’s what legislating in divided government is all about: negotiation, compromise and the art of the possible. But even when the principles are released, the truth is we’re not going to be able to seriously evaluate the substance of the Republican positions until they’ve been translated into legislation. This is truly a case when the devil is in the details.”
Still, the divide among immigrant activists who spoke with The Arizona Republic last week was already apparent.
Some advocates said they will only support a bill that includes a pathway to citizenship.
“Our families are telling us they have been fighting for a pathway to citizenship, that just getting legalization for them to work here does not provide a pathway to a dignified life,” said Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona, an advocacy group.
Other immigration-reform advocates, however, say they may be willing to compromise as long as a bill is passed this year.
“What I will not take and what I will not settle for is nothing,” said Reyna Montoya, 23, of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition.
Montoya said the more time that passes without an immigration-reform bill, the more people are deported.
She and other immigration-reform advocates have been trying to put pressure on the Obama administration to stop deporting immigrants who might qualify for legal status under a reform bill.
In fiscal 2013, the government deported 368,644 people, including 34,868 deported by the Phoenix office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Montoya is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who was brought to the U.S. illegally when she was 13. Both of her parents are undocumented, and her father is in deportation proceedings after being held in a detention facility for eight months.
Montoya said she is frustrated with Republicans for being unwilling to move immigration reform forward, but she is also angry with some Democrats in Congress who she believes are trying to use immigration reform for political gain by refusing to compromise on a pathway to citizenship. That way, if no bill passes, they can blame Republicans to score points with Latino voters, she said.
“The reality is that some Democrats would be willing to not pass immigration reform just for political gain and some Republicans don’t have the will to do it, so where does that leave the community (of undocumented immigrants)?” she said.
Montoya said she would be willing to accept a compromise bill that allowed undocumented immigrants to live and work in the U.S. with legal status even if it didn’t include a direct pathway to citizenship. However, she said she would not accept a bill that permanently barred undocumented immigrants who received legal status from ever becoming citizens.
“To block citizenship permanently, that is problematic,” she said.
Divisions over citizenship
Nora Realoza, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who works for Promise Arizona, said she is torn because she wants to see immigration reform pass this year, but also has been fighting for a bill that includes a pathway to citizenship.
Some Republicans have floated proposals that would allow undocumented immigrants to gain legal status but require a relative or employer to sponsor them to become citizens. The Senate bill would allow them to first apply for provisional visas, then green cards and eventually citizenship.
Allowing undocumented immigrants to get legal status but not citizenship would create a two-tiered society that would relegate them to second-class status, Realoza said.
“What’s more important is a pathway to citizenship, but if there is a bill that only includes legalization, then of course I would have to accept that,” she said.
Both Realoza and Montoya have been granted permission to live and work in the U.S. under President Obama’s deferred action program. They are also both graduates of Arizona State University; Realoza has a degree in journalism, Montoya has a degree in political science and transborder studies.
Realoza is concerned that a legalization program that requires immigrants to apply for citizenship through existing channels would still block many from ever becoming citizens. Many undocumented immigrants don’t have any legal relatives who could petition for them for citizenship, which is why they have remained undocumented in the first place.
“The truth of the matter is that there are a lot of people who don’t have any family to request (papers) for them,” she said.
The growing disagreement among reform advocates could give opponents of a pathway to citizenship a stronger negotiating position in 2014 after the immigration debate stalled in 2013.
A recent survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center released in December showed 55 percent of Hispanics and 49 percent of Asian-Americans think allowing undocumented immigrants to live and work legally without the threat of deportation is more important than giving them a pathway to citizenship. The survey found 35 percent of Hispanics and 44 percent of Asian-Americans think the reverse is more important.
The same survey found that if immigration reform fails, 43 percent of Hispanics and 48 percent of Asian-Americans would blame Republicans, while 34 percent of Hispanics and 29 percent of Asian-Americans would blame Democrats.
One top national immigration-reform advocate called the preliminary disagreements within the movement “a minor tactical difference.” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a Washington, D.C.-based organization seeking passage of comprehensive immigration reform, said everybody is on the same page when it comes to wanting to halt deportations and give undocumented immigrants legal status and a chance for citizenship.
Within the immigration-reform community, the drama surrounding the forthcoming Republican principles is overshadowing anticipation of Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, which will lay out his agenda for 2014.
Advocates are expecting Obama to bring up immigration reform but predict he will keep his distance from the House GOP discussions to give the Republicans space to come up with a strategy.
“We all know he supports it and he wants it. The real question is whether House Republicans can organize their way to present a proposal that could lead to a bipartisan breakthrough,” Sharry said. “In some ways, the more interesting development is not the State of the Union address, but the Republican retreat.”
Tamar Jacoby, president of the pro-reform ImmigrationWorks USA, is optimistic about the House direction but cautioned that it’s just the beginning. She predicted the Republican reaction to the principles will be more positive than some skeptics are anticipating, but said many GOP lawmakers still will need some persuasion to go along.
“It’s going to be historic, really, if it turns out that these principles do indeed put House leadership on record saying that we should have legal status for millions of unauthorized immigrants,” said Jacoby, whose organization is a national coalition of business groups. “That’s a game-changer for leadership to be saying that.”
During a recent visit to Arizona, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said immigration reform’s fate is in the hands of the Democrats and their willingness to deal with House Republicans, who he said appear to be making considerable strides on the issue.
“My feeling is that the compromise that the House would accept would include expanded work visas but not citizenship,” said Paul, a potential 2016 presidential candidate who voted against last year’s Senate bill because he felt the ceilings on visas for foreign workers were too low. “If the Democrats are willing to do that, then that’s a big step forward.”
Lorella Praeli, the national group United We Dream’s advocacy and policy director, said activists plan to hold both parties “accountable” for “political games” and a lack of action.
“We understand that this is politics for many people in Washington, but this is not politics for us,” Praeli said on a recent media conference call. “For Republicans and Democrats, they must be on notice that our community is tired of being played with, tired of empty promises and that those days are over.”