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Immigration reform: From House Republicans, some sympathy for DREAMers

Can House Republicans support a path to citizenship as part of immigration reform? At a committee hearing, sympathy is expressed for young DREAMers, but not their parents.

House Republicans aiming to tackle immigration reform are trying to feel out just how far they can go on one of the topic’s most central and sensitive issues: whether or not the nation’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants should ever be allowed to become US citizens.

The House GOP, under pressure from President Obama and a bipartisan contingent of senators who passed a comprehensive fix last month, made two things clear Tuesday at a hearing in the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee on children brought to the United States illegally.

Many GOP members appeared amenable to making special concessions to those in the US illegally through no fault of their own. But the parents of those children and the wider undocumented community are, those same members made clear, going to get little sympathy from Republicans.

“We should look at children brought here by their parents … as not being able to have illegal status because they did not consent to the act. They did not make that determination mentally. Therefore, they should be treated in a special way,” said Rep. Ted Poe (R) of Texas. “This is a unique, special issue in the entire discussion of immigration legislation.”

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The chairman of the larger Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia, who is working on a bill with House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia to address the status of undocumented youth, concurred.

“Many of them know no other home other than the United States,” said Representative Goodlatte. “They certainly don’t share the culpability of their parents.”

But Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, the subcommittee chairman, made it clear that their parents had plenty of culpability – and that they wouldn’t get the same deal as the young DREAMers, so called because they meet the general requirements for a reprieve from deportation under the DREAM Act.

Those same equities do not apply in the same regard to the other 11 million undocumented immigrants,” Representative Gowdy said.

Rep. Cory Gardner (R) of Colorado was even more explicit: “We cannot reward those family members who have broken the law.”

What House Republicans like Gowdy want are a series of policy prescriptions for different parts of the population of people in the US illegally, ranging from special treatment for DREAMers up to deportation for those who can’t pass background checks or have significant criminal records.

Under the bipartisan Senate legislation, those in the country illegally must pass background checks and pay fines twice over 10 years in order to get a provisional legal status. If a series of border security and employment verification measures are in place in a decade’s time, those in provisional status can apply for permanent residency and then citizenship, a process that could take as long as 13 years. DREAMers would have an expedited, five-year path to citizenship under the Senate bill.

But the broad desire of lawmakers like Gowdy and Goodlatte puts them in a difficult position between some members of their own conference and Democrats.

Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, perhaps the conference’s leading immigration hardliner, railed that in offering a special status for DREAMers “you’ve sacrificed the rule of law in the name of political expediency,” alluding to the party’s many voices that argue immigration reform is a crucial olive branch to Latino and Asian communities who punished GOP candidates in the 2012 elections.

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But in drawing a multitude of lines dividing those who can stay and hewing off those who must go raises the possibility, immigration advocates howl, of splitting families.

While Goodlatte and Representative Cantor are working on a bill, the lack of a public document has led immigration advocates to conclude that Republicans plan on making an offer of legal status for DREAMers and DREAMers alone.

“How could we say, yes, we want a pathway to citizenship for us,” said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of DREAMer advocacy group United We Dream at a press conference Tuesday, “and then say ‘Deport our parents.’ ”

This all leaves Democrats rather befuddled. Many members lauded the fact that Republicans, long opponents of the DREAM Act and other bills that would help young undocumented immigrants who served in the military or obtained high school degrees, were now openly contemplating similar legislation.

At the same time, moving just the DREAM Act by itself appears “farcical” to Democrats, an attempt at political inoculation versus an actual attempt to help those hurt by the nation’s immigration laws, as Rep. Joe Garcia (D) of Florida said Tuesday.

That skepticism stems both from history and from the fact that House Democrats are suffering from a bit of whiplash on the issue. Republicans voted only several weeks ago to block the Department of Homeland Security’s policy known as deferred action for young undocumented people.

“Which is the real Republican Party?” wondered House minority whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland.

But with the legislative road to Mr. Obama’s desk still running through the House GOP and Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Democrats have little choice but to take Republicans where they are.

“Without you, we cannot achieve success,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, the author of the House’s comprehensive 2006 immigration reform bill. “If the Republican Majority is starting with the DREAMers because that is as far as you are willing to go in terms of legal status for undocumented immigrants, I say thank you for coming this far, because even a small step in the right direction is the first step in any good faith negotiation. It says a compromise may be within reach.”

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“But let me be absolutely crystal clear and unequivocal,” Representative Gutierrez concluded. “Legalizing only the DREAMers is not enough.”