By Russell Berman - 01/31/14 09:53 AM EST
CAMBRIDGE, Md. – House Republicans meeting privately at their retreat on Thursday were split on whether the leadership should forge ahead with immigration legislation this year, according to people in the room.
After Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) opened the floor to members following his release of leadership’s “principles” for immigration reform, dozens of members stood up to speak, and the responses fell into four broad categories, said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), a leading Republican advocate for immigration reform.
Some conservative lawmakers, like immigration reform foe Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), said the party should do nothing. Others like Diaz-Balart and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) offered full support for the leadership principles and a green light for moving on to legislation.
But a large contingent of members stood up to urge caution and voiced concerns not so much with the substance of the principles as with the timing of pushing immigration reform in an election year and under a Democratic president they don’t trust to enforce the law.
The principles back legal status for undocumented immigrants but only after they have met certain requirements and unspecified “enforcement triggers” have been put in place. Boehner said the standards were “as far as we are willing to go,” and then opened up the floor to members, allowing them one minute each to weigh in on the proposal.
Distrust of President Obama, Diaz-Balart said in a phone interview, was “the biggest issue” that Republicans raised.
“I think we can get there, but that’s the biggest challenge,” he said. “We got a lot [of pushback] on the timing and a lot on the trust issue.
“If we can’t give people confidence that it’s enforceable,” Diaz-Balart added, “then we have a serious problem.”
The leadership principles sought to head off that concern.
“Faced with a consistent pattern of administrations of both parties only selectively enforcing our nation’s immigration laws, we must enact reform that ensures that a president cannot unilaterally stop immigration enforcement,” the principles state.
And toward the end of the closed-door meeting, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), stood up to argue that legislation could be written in such a way to ensure enforcement and that Congress would have other options if an administration fell short, Diaz-Balart said.
Several Republicans in the room said the response from the rank-and-file was not surprising and that the people who stood up to voice concerns were “predictable.”
Boehner emphasized in the meeting that no decisions had been made about whether to move forward on legislation, and the leaders are likely to continue talking and working to build support in the coming weeks.
Earlier on Thursday, the House GOP campaign chief, Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), said that any floor vote on immigration legislation was “probably months out” and would therefore come after primary election deadlines that are worrying some lawmakers.
While Diaz-Balart had previously hoped to act earlier in the year, he said Thursday, “I don’t think things are ready to move quicker than that.”
In the one-page blueprint, House Republicans explicitly rule out a “special path to citizenship,” but they say that it is in the nation’s interest for people who entered the country illegally to come forward and register with the government without fear of deportation.
“Our national and economic security depend on requiring people who are living and working here illegally to come forward and get right with the law,” the GOP standards say. “There will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws — that would be unfair to those immigrants who have played by the rules and harmful to promoting the rule of law.
“Rather, 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 Republicans say that “criminals, gang members and sex offenders” would not be eligible for legal status.
“Finally, 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,” the principles state.
The Republicans do not say what specific triggers must be meant.
Children who were brought into the country illegally “through no fault of their own” by their parents would be eligible for legal residence and citizenship.
The document also calls for strengthened border and interior security, a biometric visa-tracking system, a new E-Verify system for employers, reforms to the high-skilled visa system and a temporary worker program.