WASHINGTON - Setting up a potential clash with the Republicans who control the House, congressional Democrats insisted Tuesday they will not agree to any immigration bill that lacks a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.
Lawmakers staked out the position after a private meeting Tuesday morning between the House Democratic caucus and the four Senate Democrats who helped write a comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate last month.
"Without a path to citizenship there is not going to be a bill, there can't be a bill," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters after the meeting.
The stance met quick resistance from House Republicans who are expected to meet Wednesday on how to move forward with the immigration issue. Many conservatives who control the House oppose giving citizenship to people who crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee, said in an interview that Democrats risk ending up with no bill at all if they insist on citizenship for all those here illegally.
"When the bar has been set, as it has been by some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, that it's full-fledged citizenship for all 11 million or nothing, because that's so overtly political they may end up with nothing," said Gowdy.
Gowdy favors a citizenship path for people brought to the country as youths, military veterans, and certain others who've lived here for years and contributed to society.
Other House Republicans are open to allowing guest worker or some other legal status to people now here illegally, but would stop short of citizenship.
But Schumer insisted Democrats will accept nothing less.
House GOP leaders are deliberating how to deal with the immigration bill after the Senate passed its White House-backed legislation on a bipartisan vote of 68 to 32. The Senate bill spends $46 billion to secure the border, requires employers to check their workers' legal status, expands visa programs to allow hundreds of thousands of high- and low-skilled workers into the country, and establishes a 13-year path to citizenship for those here illegally, provided they pay fines and meet certain conditions.
In addition to their concerns about the citizenship path, many House Republicans prefer to proceed in a step-by-step fashion rather than with a single, sweeping bill like the Senate. The House Judiciary Committee has approved four separate bills dealing with various aspects of the immigration issue, including enforcing U.S. laws and creating an agriculture guest worker program, but none of the bills addresses how to deal with the millions already here illegally.
House Republicans are also insisting on stronger border security provisions than in the Senate bill.
"We all believe we're going to go forward on immigration reform. The first big step is you have to have a serious border security, because without serious border security what you're going to end up with is the same thing you saw after the 1986 act," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, referring to an immigration bill signed by President Ronald Reagan that gave citizenship to some 3 million but failed to end illegal immigration despite promises at the time that it would do so.
"And so we believe that a commonsense, step-by-step approach is the right way. We talked about it for months," Boehner said.
The Senate bill would allow immigrants here illegally to obtain a provisional legal status while the border security improvements were being put in place, but that no one could get a permanent resident green card until the border improvements were implemented. Many House Republicans, on the other hand, want to accomplish border security before anyone can get even a provisional legal status.
Schumer didn't rule out compromise on that issue. "The triggers have to be specific and achievable," he said. "They cannot be used by someone who's against a path to citizenship to block it."
- Associated Press
WASHINGTON - Republicans' knack for congressional redistricting helps them control the U.S. House, but it may be working against them on immigration changes that national GOP leaders see as critical to the next presidential election.
House Republicans generally represent far fewer Hispanics than Democrats do. And that leaves many GOP members representing white conservatives, many of whom oppose a path to citizenship for immigrants living here illegally.
The combination poses a high hurdle for passage of a comprehensive immigration overhaul in the Republican-controlled House. The Senate has passed such a measure, which includes an eventual pathway to citizenship, accompanied by greater border security.
A GOP-sanctioned study of Mitt Romney's November defeat concluded that the party must embrace immigration reform to stem its huge losses among Hispanic voters, a fast-growing group. But dozens of House Republicans have a far greater fear: inviting GOP primary challengers from the right by failing to appease their most conservative constituents.
"House members would clearly be taking a risk in supporting any kind of immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship," said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. "There's clearly a tension here between what would be in the interest of the Republican Party" - particularly in presidential races - "and what would be in the interest of individual Republicans, especially in the House."
Both Republicans and Democrats in many states have refined the art of congressional gerrymandering, in which they draw House districts to be as strongly conservative or liberal as possible. Adding to the partisan divide are decisions by millions of Americans to live among politically like-minded people. And partisan-tinged radio and TV programs shower lawmakers and constituents with ideological reinforcement.
While Democrats gerrymander districts too, GOP control of many state governments after the 2010 Census let Republicans draw an unusual number of House districts to their liking. Now, from a presidential election viewpoint, Republicans may be choking on their success.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House's third-ranking Republican leader, notes the partisan disparity in Hispanic representation. The average Hispanic proportion of a Democrat's House district is 23 percent, he tells colleagues, while it's 11 percent for Republicans. Of the House's 234 Republicans, 106 have districts in which Hispanics make up less than 6 percent of all residents.
With conservative and liberal activists dominating Republican and Democratic primaries, respectively, lawmakers are being chosen by "very unrepresentative voters," said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma. If you're a lawmaker from a solidly partisan district, Edwards said, "you don't worry about the general election. You make sure you win the primary."
For many Republicans, he said, that means constantly veering right. On issues such as immigration, Edwards said, some Americans say, "'What's wrong with these people, they're irrational."' In fact, he said, "the opposite is true. They are very rational."
At a meeting with constituents last week, GOP Rep. Justin Amash - whose Michigan district is about 7 percent Hispanic - heard sharp criticisms of the Senate immigration bill.
"Compromise is the crucifixion of conscience," said Terri Rogers, 66, of Cedar Springs, Mich.
She dismissed Amash's argument that the millions of immigrants living here illegally can't be rounded up and deported. "You break the law, you go to jail - or at least go home," Rogers said. She suggested the U.S. military handle the task.
Even in districts with more Hispanics than Amash has, they "generally aren't the voters that Republicans are counting on" to win the all-important party primaries, Abramowitz said. That's because most Hispanics lean Democratic, as President Barack Obama proved by winning 71 percent of their vote last fall.
John Feehery, a GOP strategist and former House aide, said he once thought anti-immigrant sentiment would run lower in areas with relatively few Hispanics. Instead, he said, it seems "the fewer Hispanics you have in your district, the more you're against immigration reform."
House members will vote the interests of their districts and their primary-election needs, Feehery said. "Members are worried about a tea party challenge," he said. "They're not going to worry about presidential politics."
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma is close to House Republican leaders, and he agrees that immigration reform would help the party's presidential prospects. However, he said, "people feel so strongly about this issue that it's extremely difficult to fashion a bill that will get a majority of the Republicans and a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president."
When House Republicans see their re-election efforts conflicting with the party's presidential goals, Cole said, "their own race almost certainly is going to come first, every time."