Immigration reform is now in the hands of the U.S. House of Representatives, after the Senate passed a comprehensive bill two weeks ago. The 1200-page Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act – commonly known as S744 — is White House-backed and gained a bipartisan vote of 68 to 32 in the Senate. Among other things, the bill creates a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants and beefs up security around the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the legislation has no effect unless the House takes it up and approves it.
Top House Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), agree that fixing the nation’s broken immigration system is a domestic priority, but reject the Obama Administration and Senate’s approach. Following a closed-door meeting today to discuss their position and strategy on immigration reform, Republican leaders announced that they would take a “step-by-step” approach to develop their own bill. Here is the written statement they issued:
Today House Republicans affirmed that rather than take up the flawed legislation rushed through the Senate, House committees will continue their work on a step-by-step, common-sense approach to fixing what has long been a broken system. The American people want our border secured, our laws enforced, and the problems in our immigration system fixed to strengthen our economy. But they don’t trust a Democratic-controlled Washington, and they’re alarmed by the president’s ongoing insistence on enacting a single, massive, Obamacare-like bill rather than pursuing a step-by-step, common-sense approach to actually fix the problem. The president has also demonstrated he is willing to unilaterally delay or ignore significant portions of laws he himself has signed, raising concerns among Americans that this administration cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises to secure the border and enforce laws as part of a single, massive bill like the one passed by the Senate.
Boehner has yet to provide specifics about which policies the House will take up. He simply stated that that any bill will go through regular order, with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) at the helm.
So far, the Judiciary panel has approved separate bills addressing various immigration issues, including interior enforcement, employment screening, short-term agricultural guest workers, and high-skilled workers. But none covers the question of citizenship or legal status for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.
Undocumented Immigrants: Linchpin to Comprehensive Immigration Reform
House Republicans broadly favor the Senate bill’s promise to strengthen U.S.-Mexico border security; increase travel restrictions (electronic entry/exit system at all American airports and seaports that tracks when visitors enter and leave the country); and heighten employment restrictions (mandatory E-Verify system to prevent U.S. employers from hiring unauthorized workers).
But they are divided over the Senate bill’s 13-year path to U.S. citizenship to those living here illegally, provided they pay fines and meet certain conditions. Some GOP leaders prefer a path to citizenship only for young, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their families and consider the U.S. as their only home (so-called Dreamers). Some want to accomplish stronger border security before even provisional legal status is allowed. Some support a path to lawful status to the undocumented, which would bring them out of the shadows, but without means to gain citizenship. And some oppose any type of legalization for any undocumented immigrant, period.
The four Democratic members of the “Gang of Eight” who drafted the Senate bill and Democrats in both chambers insist that reform must include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet certain conditions.
“The bottom line is we all agree—the four of us and the Democratic caucus—that without a path to citizenship, there is not going to be a bill,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “There can’t be a bill.”
Republicans warned that this all-or-nothing approach could result in no immigration bill at all. “I think it’s less likely today than it was a month ago,” Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-ID) said, when asked about the prospect of a bipartisan bill passing Congress. “And I think it’s because they have staked a position that is: ‘citizenship or nothing else.’”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, said “When the bar has been set, as it has been by some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, that it’s full-fledged citizenship for all 11 million or nothing, because that’s so overtly political they may end up with nothing.”
Because Republicans make up the majority of the House, their approach will have a profound impact on the future of immigration reform. At the closed-door conference today, GOP leaders did not reach a consensus on a possible pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants. “We have a disagreement inside here,” said Rep. Steve King (R-IA), estimating a “50-50” split on any legalization for undocumented immigrants, a key issue in comprehensive immigration reform.
The lack of consensus is not only a stumbling block for the House, but a linchpin to comprehensive immigration reform. And in light of the step-by-step approach, a single, sweeping bill like the one approved by the Senate is unexpected in the House.