Everyone knows the major obstacle to immigration reform will be legalization for the 11.1 million people in the United States who have overstayed visas or entered the country without federal authorization. Many in Congress adamantly oppose anything that would regularize these peoples’ status and/or recognize their right to live or work in the United States. Their argument is a powerful one: Special exceptions for those who have broken the law undermine respect for the law.
Although powerful, this argument is now receiving a reply—perhaps for the first time—from conservatives. “Constituents are saying very loudly you shouldn’t get any special benefits because of your illegal status,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said at a hearing yesterday. But, he said, legalization still can “comport with all of the promises most Republicans make in their campaigns.” He argues that no special status is needed. As he told The Washington Post, Congress should include the 11 million as “part of a new, robust guest-worker program. It would allow them to step forward and gain legal status after paying a fine, without fear of deportation.”
This proposal would do more than protect the rule of law—it would virtually eliminate the future for illegal immigration into the United States. Immigration enforcement, rather than focusing on pushing people out would focus on pushing them into a legal avenue for entry. This component of reform was exactly why previous amnesties failed to end illegal immigration. They treated the problem’s symptom without addressing its cause — unjustifiable restrictions on entry. Better yet, because Rep. Labrador is one of the four House Republicans working on a plan, it might actually happen.
Rep. Labrador’s argument may be starting to gain some traction, even among immigration hawks. The House Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration yesterday saw two important such players — Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, – ask nearly identical versions of the same question: “Are there options that we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and a pathway to citizenship for those not lawfully present in the United States?”
Neither may ultimately side with Rep. Labrador, but the fact they are looking for solutions that don’t involve deportation or “self-deportation” is news. No one knows what proposal the House Republicans are working on yet, but Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who is a skeptic of the Senate plan, said “proposals which balance the humanity which defines us as a people with respect for the rule of law which defines us as a republic are welcome.” Gowdy made the argument reformers often have made that the rule of law will actually be worse without reform because it allows for selective enforcement: “”What we cannot become is a nation where the law is enforced selectively.”
One of the other main GOP participants in the House plan, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., seemed to indicate the Labrador solution might be in there. “We have 10 or 11 million people who are illegally here,” Diaz-Balart said recently,. ”Any plan that doesn’t deal with that is not dealing with reality [and] is not dealing with the problem.” Another participant, Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, said” “We’ve solved the problem of those concerned with the rule of law, but we’ve done it with compassion.”
Other House Republicans are lining up for reform. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said yesterday “11 million people [are] here illegally, many of whom have become part of the fabric of our country.” He said Congress should “start” with undocumented children. Speaker John Boehner has said, “I’m confident the president, myself, and others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all.” It’s hard to view “this issue” as anything other than the 11 million here illegally. He won’t spell out his views exactly, but has heaped praise on Senate Republicans who have worked out a set of principles that involve legalization.
As for his side of the Hill, Speaker Boehner said, the bipartisan members working on a plan “basically have an agreement.” This plan could receive support from major GOP figures, such as former-VP candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio’s plan which includes some form of legalization. Rep. Ryan said, “Senator Rubio is exactly right on the need to fix our broken immigration system. I support the principles he’s outlined.”
Clearly, Republicans are looking for answers that recognize the law was broken and deny special benefits to unauthorized workers. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tecas, ranking Republican on the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, recently recommended a pathway to “work here… but not necessarily be a citizen.” Shortly after the election, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called for “empathy” and said “everything should be on the table,” including legalization. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, wants a plan that will “impose sanctions or penalties on [illegal] immigrants,” which any plan will.
It’s unclear how many GOP senators would support some form of legalization and allow an immigration bill to move forward. But 10 GOP Senators — Lindsay Graham, John McCain, Marco Rubio, Mitch McConnell, Susan Collins, Rand Paul, Lisa Murkowski, John Cornyn, Orrin Hatch and Rob Portman have either supported legalization in the past or said recently that they would under certain circumstances. In the House, the 10 likely supporters are the four working on the plan—Reps. Labrador, Diaz-Balart, Carter, and Sam Johnson, R-Texas, plus House leaders — Reps. Ryan, Cantor and Boehner — and Hispanic Reps. David Valadao Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).
Who else might sign on isn’t clear, but Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said the House proposal will contain legalization and “many Republicans support this bill.” In any case, this diverse group — composed of social conservatives, neo-conservatives and free marketers — might be able to make headway.