CAMBRIDGE, Md. -- House Republican leaders laid out their long-awaited immigration reform principles on Thursday to the GOP conference, suggesting a broad step-by-step plan that would include more border security and enforcement, major changes to the legal immigration system and what will likely be the most contentious issue: legal status for some people who are in the country without authorization.
The principles aren't detailed and are considered more a jumping-off point for discussion than proposed bills, but it's a start for the House GOP, which has delayed on immigration reform since the Senate passed a bill last June.
"The problem has been around for at least the last 15 years and turned into a political football -- I think it's unfair," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters at a press conference earlier in the day. "I think this is the time to deal with it. But how we deal with it is going to be critically important."
Boehner reminded reporters that he had said "the day after the election" that immigration reform was an important issue that should be addressed. Later at the Republican retreat, Boehner outlined the GOP leadership's principles for immigration reform, making the case for why action was necessary.
"It’s important to act on immigration reform because we’re focused on jobs and economic growth, and this about jobs and growth," the speaker told members, according to remarks provided to The Huffington Post by a source in the room. "Reform is also about our national security. The safety and security of our nation depends on our ability to secure our border, enforce our laws, improve channels for legal entry to the country, and identify who is here illegally."
But he continued, "I have been clear that I oppose the massive, flawed immigration reform bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate. I’ve been clear that the House will not take it up or engage in negotiations with the Senate on it… We will address this issue in a step-by-step, common sense fashion that starts with securing our nation’s borders and enforcing our nation’s laws."
He emphasized in the press conference before his address that the leadership wants voters and members to be comfortable with the proposals, repeating that the House will take a step-by-step approach, rather than consider a comprehensive bill.
"You know, it's one thing to pass a law, it's another thing to have the confidence of the American people behind that law as you pass it," he said. "It helps our members understand the bite-sized pieces, and it helps our constituents build more confidence that what we're doing makes sense," he added later.
The preamble to the principles states that "Our nation’s immigration system is broken and our laws are not being enforced," adding that "Washington’s failure to fix them is hurting our economy and jeopardizing our national security." It then addresses six principles, divided into sections: "Border Security and Interior Enforcement Must Come First," "Implement Entry-Exit Visa Tracking System," "Employment Verification and Workplace Enforcement," "Reforms to the Legal Immigration System," "Youth" and "Individuals Living Outside the Rule of Law."
The most contentious sections could be those on how to deal with undocumented immigrants. The principles recommend different things for so-called Dreamers -- the undocumented young people who entered the country as children -- and undocumented adults. Dreamers should be allowed "an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship," the principles state, so long as they meet certain requirements.
Undocumented immigrants in general wouldn't be given a "special path to citizenship," typically defined as a set way for applicants to become legal residents and then citizens. But the principles suggest they "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 document specifically excludes "criminal aliens, gang members, and sex offenders and those who do not meet the above requirements."
The principles suggest that legalization be delayed until "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." They do not address whether immigrants under the new status could obtain green cards and eventually become citizens.
In addition to border security and interior enforcement, the principles call for the government to better track individuals entering and exiting the country and to require businesses to check the immigration status of their would-be hires. They also call for changes to the legal immigration process that would limit family immigration, allow foreign-born students to remain in the U.S. more easily after attending college here and make employer-based and temporary-worker visas more flexible based on "economic needs of the country."
The border security and enforcement section states that "the United States is failing" in its mission of protecting the border. The GOP leaders' principles, then, would create a "zero tolerance policy for those who cross the border illegally or overstay their visas in the future." The principles also state that reform should ensure presidents cannot selectively enforce immigration laws -- something President Barack Obama has been accused of doing.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), one of the members advocating for immigration reform, told CNN's Jake Tapper in an interview that he thinks border security must come first. He said he does not support "amnesty or some special pathway," but that undocumented immigrants should be able to "get ... right with the law" -- or, in more direct terms, obtain legal status.
"The approach that people like me want to take is, it's not 'trust but verify,' it's verify, then trust," he told CNN. "Verify that we have the border secure, verify that we have interior enforcement, verify that we've got the right rule of law reforms in place so we don't have this problem 10, 15 years down the road while we fix the broken legal immigration system."
It won't be an easy task. Most of the reasons House Republicans gave last year for not wanting to deal with immigration reform still apply, particularly their distrust of the president. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), who was once a member of a bipartisan working group on immigration reform, became an ardent opponent of reform in this Congress last fall after a fight over government spending in which he felt the president showed his inability to work with Republicans. Labrador hasn't changed his mind, according to an interview to be aired Sunday on Telemundo's "Enfoque con José Díaz-Balart." He told Díaz-Balart it would be "impossible" for the House GOP to approve immigration reform that gave legal status to undocumented immigrants this year.
"We want to avoid having the same problem 10 years from now with undocumented immigrants, many millions of whom are entering the United States," Labrador said in Spanish, translated by the network. "If we can’t trust this president to fully enforce the laws of the United States now, when we don’t have immigration reform, why should we think he’ll do it then, considering there are certain aspects of the law he doesn’t like?"
Other Republicans, even those who said immigration reform should be addressed, also questioned the president's and Democrats' commitment to getting a bill that would work. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told reporters he is ready to work on immigration reform. But when asked whether he thinks Democrats are willing to work with them on immigration, he laughed and said, "nope."
He quickly added, though, that he hopes that isn't the case. He said he was encouraged by more recent statements from the president, such as saying he would be open to the House Republicans' desired piece-by-piece approach so long as it addressed all of the major immigration issues. Obama reiterated in his State of the Union address Tuesday that he wants to "get immigration reform done this year."
"If they really want to address this, I think we can find ways to work together," Kinzinger said. "If they don't want to make it a political issue. I said 'nope' kind of tongue-in-cheek, but it seems like maybe the administration is ready to kind of reach out and work with us."
Boehner, for his part, took a hardline on the principles, even while soliciting feedback from House Republicans on the proposals.
"These standards are as far as we are willing to go," he told conference attendees on Thursday. "Nancy Pelosi said yesterday that for her caucus, it is a special path to citizenship or nothing. If Democrats insist on that, then we are not going to get anywhere this year."
"Having said that," he continued, "I believe these standards represent a fair, principled way for us to solve this issue, beginning with securing our borders and enforcing our laws. If you have good ideas for improving these standards, we want to hear it. The rest of the leaders and I want your feedback."
Democrats expressed cautious optimism about the GOP principles.
“While these standards are certainly not everything we would agree with, they leave a real possibility that Democrats and Republicans, in both the House and Senate, can in some way come together and pass immigration reform that both sides can accept," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who helped to write the so-called "gang of eight" bill that passed the Senate, said in a statement. "It is a long, hard road but the door is open.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), possibly the most outspoken House Democrat on immigration reform, said in a statement that he can't say "yes" or "no" to a plan with so few details, and reaffirmed his support for allowing undocumented immigrants to eventually become citizens. But, he added, "the most important first step from the point of view of immigrants is to stop the massive increase in deportations."
"The Senate passed a bill with strong bipartisan support and the House should do the same," Gutierrez said. "I think we are getting a little bit closer and that bodes well for the future."
Read the full principles below:
Our nation's immigration system is broken and our laws are not being enforced. Washington's failure to fix them is hurting our economy and jeopardizing our national security. The overriding purpose of our immigration system is to promote and further America's national interests and that is not the case today. The serious problems in our immigration system must be solved, and we are committed to working in a bipartisan manner to solve them. But they cannot be solved with a single, massive piece of legislation that few have read and even fewer understand, and therefore, we will not go to a conference with the Senate's immigration bill. The problems in our immigration system must be solved through a step-by-step, common-sense approach that starts with securing our country's borders, enforcing our laws and implementing robust enforcement measures. These are the principals guiding us in that effort.
Border Security and Interior Enforcement Must Come First
It is the fundamental duty of any government to secure its borders, and the United States is failing in this mission. We must secure our borders now and verify that they are secure. In addition, we must ensure now that when immigration reform is enacted, there will be a zero tolerance policy for those who cross the border illegally or overstay their visas in the future. 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.
Implement Entry-Exit Visa Tracking System
A fully functioning Entry-Exit system has been mandated by eight separate statutes over the last 17 years. At least three of these laws call for this system to be biometric, using technology to verify identity and prevent fraud. We must implement this system so we can identify and track down visitors who abuse our laws.
Employment Verification and Workplace Enforcement
In the 21st century it is unacceptable that the majority of employees have their work eligibility verified through a paper based system wrought with fraud. It is past time for this country to fully implement a workable electronic employment verification system.
Reforms to the Legal Immigration System
For far too long, the United States has emphasized extended family members and pure luck over employment-based immigration. This is inconsistent with nearly every other developed country. Every year thousands of foreign nationals pursue degrees at America's colleges and universities, particularly in high skilled fields. Many of them want to use their expertise in U.S. industries that will spur economic growth and create jobs for Americans. When visas aren't available, we end up exporting this labor and ingenuity to other countries. Visa and green card allocations need to reflect the needs of employers and the desire for these exceptional individuals to help grow our economy.
The goal of any temporary worker program should be to address the economic needs of the country and to strengthen our national security by allowing for realistic, enforceable, usable, legal paths for entry into the United States. Of particular concern are the needs of the agricultural industry, among others. It is imperative that these temporary workers are able to meet the economic needs of the country and do not displace or disadvantage American workers.
One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children through no fault of their own, those who know no other place as home. For those who meet certain eligibility standards, and serve honorably in our military or attain a college degree, we will do just that.
Individuals Living Outside the Rule of Law
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. 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). Criminal aliens, gang members, and sex offenders and those who do not meet the above requirements will not be eligible for this program. 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.
This is a developing piece and has been updated.
Sabrina Siddiqui contributed reporting.