The decision yesterday by House Republicans to release a broad set of principles for immigration reform may or may not lead to successful legislation this year. There are still many political and substantive hurdles to overcome to reach a bipartisan deal. But regardless, the announcement should be recognized for what it is – a huge and consequential change in the Republican Party’s approach to immigration reform.
When my boss Richard Haass asked me in 2008 to direct the CFR Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, the GOP – with a handful of exceptions like former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who led that Task Force along with former White House chief of staff Mack McLarty – was unreservedly hostile to any legalization for the nearly 12 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. The House Republicans at the time were advocating legislation that would criminalize all unauthorized presence in the United States, making felons out of people who had been living and working here for years. The GOP had succeeded in 2006 in pushing through a bill, the Secure Fence Act, that authorized hundreds of miles of fencing on the Mexican border, and directed the administration to somehow prevent all illegal entries. And when the DREAM Act , which would legalize children brought here illegally by their parents, passed the Democratic-controlled House in 2010, it was killed by Senate Republicans. That hostility to anything that smacked of “amnesty” remained the party’s stance right through Mitt Romney’s disastrous adoption of “self-deportation” as the core of his immigration platform in the 2012 presidential election.
In contrast, the principles released yesterday by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) are a serious effort to balance competing priorities in immigration reform. The GOP is insisting, rightly in my view, that it is “the fundamental duty of any government to secure its border.” In our bipartisan Task Force report, we wrote: “The United States has the right, and the duty, to control and secure its borders.” But the Republicans are no longer insisting on an impregnable border, and instead have set up a sensible and verifiable scheme though the Border Security Results Act, which was passed unanimously last year by the House Homeland Security Committee. Much of that bill is closely in line with our recent report Managing Illegal Immigration: How Effective is Enforcement?, which I co-wrote with two former Department of Homeland Security officials, Bryan Roberts and John Whitley.
The GOP principles call for all employers to verify that their workforce is legally authorized; the CFR Task Force report recommended “a mandatory system for verifying those authorized to work in the United States.” The GOP called for attracting and retaining foreign students and other highly skilled individuals; our Task Force wrote that while in the past rationing admission had been the main priority of U.S. immigration policy, in the future “recruiting the immigrants it wants must be the highest priority.” Most remarkably, Republicans have now declared themselves in favor of the DREAM Act, as well as a broader measure that would finally allow most of the unauthorized to “live legally and without fear in the U.S.”; our Task Force recommended the same, calling for “earned legalization” for those who demonstrated “a history of contribution to the United States through work and taxes, a commitment to remaining by learning English and adopting U.S. democratic values, and a willingness to pay some restitution.”
Principles are not legislation, for course, and there is a long way to go. The biggest hurdle will be the GOP’s insistence on “specific enforcement triggers” prior to any legalization. Those triggers can be made reasonable and workable, or unreasonable and unworkable. The underlying issue here is continued Republican mistrust of President Obama; there is widespread fear that, as one of the leading opponents of the legislation, Mark Krikorian, put it recently, that “once that population has legal status, immigration hawks lose the only leverage they have.” In other words, the only way to ensure that enforcement is carried out seriously is to continue to hold the unauthorized population hostage.
Given the history, that is not an unreasonable fear, and there is no simple solution to that mistrust. Obama certainly helped with an interview he gave to CNN last night in which he praised Boehner’s efforts. “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,” he said.
The key is not the White House, however, but rather the Department of Homeland Security. In a CNN.com piece last year, I argued that Congress needs to focus not on the president but on the Border Patrol and other permanent elements of the U.S. immigration enforcement effort. I wrote:
“Even potential Republican supporters do not trust the Obama administration on enforcement, particularly on securing the Mexican border, and there is little reason to think this view will change. Fortunately, these lawmakers don't need to. This bill will set immigration rules for a generation; President Barack Obama will be gone in a few years.
What is needed is a closer, ongoing relationship between Congress and the professionals responsible for border security -- the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection agents….For the GOP to reject the new border enforcement resources that will come with an immigration bill because they don't trust Obama is like refusing to pay for new Pentagon weapons programs as long as Democrats are in charge. Border security must be an ongoing mission of national importance that, like national defense, requires a close working relationship between the professionals in uniform and the politicians--one that transcends the party in power.”
For all the progress represented by the principles announced yesterday, politics will obviously play a big role in deciding whether reform gets over the finish line. Here too the Republican leadership seems to be waking up to the obvious: that with a growing population of first-generation Americans that today votes overwhelmingly Democratic, the GOP’s long-term electoral prospects are grim unless they can get past the immigration policy issue and talk to those voters about something else. As I have argued elsewhere, the Conservative Party in Canada figured out how to do this, and as a result the Tories have won the past three elections, the first time a conservative party had done so in Canada in more than half a century.
Again, it would be naïve to suggest any of this will be easy. But the shift in the Republican Party stance represented by the new principles is enormous and historic. At the very least, it marks a new and hopeful day in our country’s long and difficult debate over immigration.