The Renewed Pursuit of Amnesty

Senator Ted Cruz believes the House GOP leadership’s amnesty plan will prevent Republicans from retaking the Senate in November. Cruz told the conservative online publication Breitbart, “Amnesty is wrong in any circumstance, and if we are going to fix our broken immigration system – and we should – it makes much more sense to do so next year, so that we are negotiating a responsible solution with a Republican Senate majority rather than with Chuck Schumer.” 

By Andrew Thomas | February 4, 2014

Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Eric Cantor stand with Speaker John Boehner as he answers questions at the GOP winter retreat.
(Getty Images)

Last week, Congressional Republican leaders revealed the latest effort by members of the party establishment to provide legal status for at least some of the nation’s illegal-immigrant population. At the party’s winter retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, House members learned of this most recent proposal and the precepts that would frame the discussion. Drafts of the key document were not circulated, but made available to insiders’ eyes only, with no copying or note-taking allowed. The leadership team of Speaker John Boehner unveiled the finalized “standards for immigration reform” towards the end of the day on January 30, and triggered a renewed debate within the GOP.

This latest twist in the meandering path toward federal immigration reform showed a sudden reemergence of lobbying efforts which, previously, had largely hit a dead-end. As it turned out, even as Congress was brushing aside the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill that came out of the Senate, GOP leaders were working on a renewed push for new immigration laws in early 2014. Late last year, Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Whip Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Paul Ryan began working on common language and reaching out to potential allies in the GOP caucuses.

With their newly announced principles, the House GOP leadership team committed itself formally and in writing to a set of reform guidelines, which was something new. In the GOP conclave where Boehner shared these principles with GOP representatives, he assured them these ideals were “as far as we are willing to go.” There would be no “special path to citizenship,” he insisted. Though Boehner kept the specifics under wraps as long as possible, and the principles themselves were broad and mostly unremarkable, they presaged an inevitable, potentially bitter fight within the Republican Party.

“The problems in our immigration system must be solved through a step-by-step, common-sense approach that starts with securing our country’s borders, enforcing our laws, and implementing robust enforcement measures,” the document’s preamble stated. The House GOP leadership’s tract called for greater border enforcement, employment verification, a functional entry-exit visa system, and guest-worker opportunities—all standard fare. But the principles also carve out a form of amnesty for the so-called Dreamers, or immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. This development meant a sharp break with the past. As the New York Times noted, “For a Republican Party that advocated ‘self-deportation’ as recently as 2012, it’s a massive shift.”

The House GOP Leadership document says of the estimated 11 or 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.: “These persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S, but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits).” The last sentence of the principles states, “None of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced.”

What is meant by “specific enforcement triggers”? That was left unclear. A Congress that has promised fences and tougher border security in the past, with little to no tangible border crackdowns materializing thereafter, is very likely to encounter public skepticism. Even so, many Republican lawmakers may be tempted to sign onto the reforms if the legislation contains language requiring security measures in place before legalization can begin.

Bipartisan talks over immigration reform have fallen apart for years because of disagreement over how to balance enhanced border security with granting of legal protection for those in the United States illegally. Any effort to implement greater border security simultaneously with legalization is fraught with practical problems.

Some Republicans envision a schedule whereby illegal immigrants come forward and register as the first step of seeking legalization, this as security measures are being implemented along the border and ports of entry. Yet that is legalization first, and is essentially amnesty by another name.

Many Democrats, for their part, are likely to revolt over the very existence of “specific enforcement triggers.” Indeed, pro-reform groups embraced the principles in the GOP House document, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but many expressed concern over the “triggers.” They voiced the familiar worry that security measures would have to be operational before illegal immigrants could qualify for legalized status. The “triggers,” they fear, would be too stringent, and ultimately would prevent millions of illegal immigrants from being legalized.

Conservative suspicions over a stealth “legalization first” effort rose following an MSNBC interview of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. He suggested that under the House GOP leaders’ plan, illegal immigrants might gain instant legal status. Under the new regime, he noted, those in the country illegally might receive probationary status while enforcement measures are being implemented. Ryan explained, “You can be on probation, and you have to satisfy the terms of your probation while the border’s getting secured.”

This compromise would tip the balance towards a broad form of amnesty, something anathema to conservatives. Given this apparent end game, it was not surprising that praise for the House GOP principles came from members of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight.” Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer of New York commented, “While these standards are certainly not everything we would agree with, they leave a real possibility that Democrats and Republicans, in both the House and Senate, can in some way come together and pass immigration reform that both sides can accept.” Senator John McCain of Arizona commended Boehner for “[getting] control of his conference.” He added, “I’ve been digging for that pony for a long time.”

This latest foray into immigration politics provoked a predictable backlash from conservatives. Both pundits and grassroots leaders questioned the timing and substance of the reforms. William Kristol, editor of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, called the renewed immigration efforts “a recipe for disaster.” National Review chimed in with an editorial entitled, “Don’t Do It.” The editors explained, “The last thing the party needs is a brutal intramural fight when it has been dealt a winning hand,” i.e., public disapproval of ObamaCare.

Senator Ted Cruz told the conservative online publication Breitbart, “Amnesty is wrong in any circumstance, and if we are going to fix our broken immigration system – and we should – it makes much more sense to do so next year, so that we are negotiating a responsible solution with a Republican Senate majority rather than with Chuck Schumer.”

The coming weeks will determine whether the latest pursuit of a form of amnesty for the nation’s illegal immigrants will finally make it out of the United States Congress and onto President Obama’s desk.

Andrew Thomas is a graduate of the University of Missouri and Harvard Law School. Twice elected as Maricopa County Attorney, the district attorney for greater Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas served a county of four million residents and ran one of the largest prosecutor’s offices in the nation. He established a national reputation for fighting violent crime, identity theft, drug abuse and illegal immigration. He is the author of four books, including Clarence Thomas: A Biography and the The People v. Harvard Law: How America’s Oldest Law School Turned Its Back on Free Speech. Mr. Thomas is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.