TIME Immigration

GOP’s Immigration Blueprint Divides Reformers

Immigration advocates continue to push
Marchers with the Fair Immigration Reform Movement and its Keeping Families Together: Youth in Action campaign march past the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on, Nov. 14, 2013. J.M. Eddins Jr. / MCT / Getty Images

Now what?

Reformers have spent months waiting for House Republicans to lay out a plan to rewrite U.S. immigration law. Now that the GOP has finally made its move, they can’t agree what to make of it.

The blueprint released Thursday is “a game changer,” according to Tamar Jacoby, president of the pro-reform business coalition ImmigrationWorks USA. Or perhaps it’s “a joke,” as Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, told the Washington Post. “It’s a hoax is what it is. It’s like fool’s gold.”

Reform advocates, who pored over the GOP’s 800-word “standards for immigration reform” with the fervor of NSA code breakers, came away divided about whether it represents a genuine effort to untangle one of the knottiest policy problems facing Congress. The divergent reactions proved that the immigration movement is no more a monolith than the famously fractious House Republican conference.

“It’s like a piece of modern art,” says Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, who called the blueprint an encouraging first step. “You see what you want to see.”

The truth is it may be impossible to know yet whether the skeletal outline unveiled by House Republican leaders is a significant milestone toward a badly needed overhaul of immigration policy or a political document meant to inoculate the party at the polls.

Start with the positives. In 2012, the Republican Party nominated a presidential candidate whose immigration platform included the phrase “self-deportation.” Mitt Romney’s anemic performance with Latinos convinced party strategists the GOP needed to soften its stance to remain competitive as the demographics of the electorate shifted. But after the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a landmark immigration bill on a strong bipartisan vote, the House GOP refused to budge. Momentum evaporated.

But things have changed. Last fall, leadership stood feckless as a band of backbenchers shut down the government. Less than four months later, the top four House Republicans stand united behind a plan that would allow millions of undocumented immigrants a path to legal status, and give “children” brought to the U.S. illegally a chance to obtain citizenship. For House Speaker John Boehner, who has preferred to let his rank-and-file dictate the direction of the conference, marching his troops into a controversial debate with the midterm elections looming was a bold choice.

“It is a good beginning,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who has spearheaded immigration negotiations in the House, told reporters on a Friday afternoon conference call. “I am so delighted.”

Formal legislative language is still a long way off. Votes are “probably months out,” Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, told reporters. As a matter of politics, the vagueness of the GOP blueprint makes sense: It is an opening volley that helps the party delay action until after congressional filing deadlines, which protects vulnerable members from primary challenges.

But after months of waiting, the lack of detail irked many reformers. There was little, if anything, in the one-page document that one Republican or another has not said before. The House GOP still refuses to produce a comprehensive bill or to enter into negotiations with the Senate. It appears to reject a pathway to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., a long-held goal of activists and Democrats. When it comes to reworking the legal immigration system, it leaves critical figures blank, such as the number of low-skilled workers eligible for green cards and the number of high-tech workers who can receive special visas. And it declares that any concessions to Democrats will be contingent on meeting undefined border security and interior-enforcement metrics.

“Is it heartening? Yes, it is,” says Jose Antonio Vargas, a undocumented immigrant and former journalist who founded the advocacy group Define American. “But it also leaves a whole lot to be desired.”

Perhaps most vexing to reform advocates is the final sentence of the GOP’s blueprint, which states that no steps toward legalization can be taken “before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people” that immigration laws will be enforced. The document doesn’t say what those triggers should be. But the caveat is a nod to the atmosphere of distrust that pervades the process.

The “majority view” among House Republicans, says Florida GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, is that Republicans should tackle the immigration issue, though he acknowledged the faction that opposes doing so and another that remains leery of the political risk involved. “But there is a great distrust on behalf of the Republicans in the House toward this Administration,” says Diaz-Balart, who supports reform. The upshot is Republicans will insist on “airtight” language, Diaz-Balart said, to force President Barack Obama to enforce the law. The goal, immigration-reform advocates believe, is to block Obama from easing the flow of deportations—the single most pressing concern for immigration-reform advocates.

For Latinos, there is a bitter irony to the conservative mantra that Obama can’t be trusted to carry out immigration law. They argue Obama has been draconian, not lenient. The numbers bear this out: The Obama administration has deported nearly two million undocumented immigrants—the highest rate of any presidency, and more than George Washington through Bill Clinton combined. “The number one priority of Latinos is to stop the deportations,” says Roberto Lovato, co-founder of the Latino advocacy group Presente.org. “It’s a first and fundamental step. The immigration system is broken because it destroys immigrant families.”

Obama indicated Friday that he would be open to an immigration deal that does not include a pathway to citizenship, if other Democratic goals were met in the process. “If the speaker proposes something that says, right away, folks aren’t being deported, families aren’t being separated, we’re able to attract top young students to provide the skills or start businesses here and then there’s a regular process of citizenship, I’m not sure how wide the divide ends up being,” Obama told CNN. But the GOP’s security-first approach would seem to nix that possibility.

That’s why some immigration-reform advocates, like the AFL-CIO, are so frustrated by the document, which seems to reject both citizenship and the cessation of deportations. Others, like Kelley and Gutierrez, parsed the the wording differently; to them, rejecting a “special path” to citizenship doesn’t mean that current law can’t be adjusted to clear an existing path.

“We have a responsibility to see what the specifics are, to put some meat on those bones,” Gutierrez says. “There is going to be a lot of work that needs to get done, and a lot of negotiation that needs to get done. But you know something? We now have a platform to get to work.”

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