House GOP Backs Permanent Legal Status for More Immigrants

On Thursday, House Republicans released six principles on immigration reform.

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House Republican leaders presented six draft principles for immigration reform at their retreat in Cambridge, Maryland today that call for immigration to be dealt in smaller bills with border security as the first priority but would eventually allow for citizenship for "DREAMers" as well as an unclear legal status for many undocumented immigrants.

The most important aspect is that House Republicans fully embrace the idea that all illegal immigrants who “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 public benefits)” will be able to obtain legal status. However, it does warn that “there will be no special path to citizenship,” it leaves the meaning of the phrase “special path” entirely unclear whether there will be any possibility for citizenship or simply just permanent legal status.. As Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) worried aloud to reporters earlier Thursday, "If you legalize somebody without a pathway to citizenship you create, in essence, a class of people that have no chance of becoming citizens."

The principles do provide for a clear path to citizenship for undocumented residents who were brought to the United States as children, known as DREAMers, provided that they “serve honorably in our military or attain a college degree” and attain other eligibility standards.

However, this isn’t the first step of the process. House Republican insist first on securing the borders with verification and a “zero tolerance” policy towards future undocumented immigrants as well as an entry-exit visa tracking program, workplace verification, and reforms to the current immigration process to allow for more visas for skilled workers, particularly in high tech industries.

While the principles go far short of the immigration bill passed by the Senate in 2013--which the House once again rejected Thursday--they still represent a significant leap for the GOP in immigration reform as it represents a wholesale endorsement of some form of permanent legal status for those in the country illegally. This legislation is sure to divide the Republican Party, particularly immigration hawks who have been steadfast opponents of anything which they describe as “amnesty.” Within minutes of the principles leaking, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) sent out a release bashing them as “amnesty first.” Heritage Action called the proposal "ludicrous."

The document also met mixed reaction on the left. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called it "flimsy" and said it embodied "the callous attitude Republicans have toward our nation’s immigrants." In contrast, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) expressed cautious optimism that principles represented a step towards compromise.

The question is whether the principles are acted upon. There is yet no legislation associated with them and, in the short term, a debt limit showdown is looming.

With primary elections coming soon for Republican incumbents, it’s not likely that the House GOP will act quickly on these. NRCC chair Greg Walden told reporters earlier Thursday that he did not expect any floor action on immigration reform until June, after most primaries have been held. This is an important first step but the real question is when, and if, the principles become bills and laws.