WASHINGTON — As immigration reform moves to the House, here are about the only things we know for sure about its path forward: The Senate bill isn’t coming up, the process is going to take a while, and no one really knows what the end product is going to look like — except that enhanced border security is topic number one.
The House GOP held a two-hour meeting on immigration reform Wednesday afternoon to try and hash out what to do now that the Senate has sent them a massive overhaul of federal immigration laws and introduced a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. That bill is DOA in the Republican-controlled House, where the GOP caucus is divided on the question of citizenship for those immigrants. The divisions are evident in the Minnesota delegation as well — Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen said they’re open to looking at the legal status of immigrants, while Michele Bachmann and the caucus’ conservative wing oppose reform, equating it to amnesty.
“We’re absolutely not going to take up the Senate bill, we’re going to move forward with the process and we’re going to have to evaluate each of these bills as they come up,” Kline said after the meeting. “It was very clear in the conversation that there was unanimous agreement that you’ve got to have real solid border security before you can take the next step.”
Leadership: No Senate bill
Not only is the Senate’s bill dead in the House but its comprehensive, all-in-one-bill strategy isn’t making its way across the Capitol, either.
House leadership put out a statement Wednesday saying they’ll take a “step-by-step, common-sense approach to fixing what has long been a broken system.” There’s no timetable, either, though the brunt of the work will wait until after Congress’ August recess.
As for what reform would look like, they said only, “The American people want our border secured, our laws enforced, and the problems in our immigration system fixed to strengthen our economy.”
Part of the conference’s conversation is said to have centered on providing citizenship to children brought into America illegally. But there wasn’t consensus on the question of citizenship for the broader undocumented community. And consensus is important, since Speaker John Boehner has said he won’t bring up any immigration reform bill for a House vote unless a majority of his party will support it.
Paulsen and Kline: Border security first
Like a lot of the conference, Kline and Paulsen left the meeting with only broad initial opinions on what reform should look like and how it should move forward.
But Kline said the party is intent on securing the border before looking at any other component of reform.
“We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, and I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,” he said. “I think we need immigration reform, in a wide range of areas: We need the visa system fixed, the guest worker system fixed, we need to address the status of the people here unlawfully, we need to address the status of their kids, but if you don’t have border security right, you’re not going to go anywhere.”
Paulsen said he’s particularly interested in how lawmakers can change administration standards for high-skilled workers. The Senate’s bill increased the number of “H1-B” visas available for high-skilled immigrants from 65,000 to 110,000 (and potentially up to 180,000), but Paulsen said such “arbitrary” caps are one of the bill’s shortcomings.
Beyond that — and, of course, securing the border — Paulsen said he’ll wait to commit to any reform plan until the House does its work.
“I think border security is first and foremost, and enforcement of it needs to be fixed and addressed for sure,” he said. “That needs to be the top component, and maybe there’s triggers that trigger other components, other reforms. That’s something that we’re going to talk about.”
Bachmann: No ‘amnesty’
The GOP’s conservative faction, including Bachmann, has mostly rallied against any plan that would provide citizenship to undocumented immigrants, calling such a plan “amnesty.”
That group’s top priority has been a secure border, but Bachmann told USA Today she opposes even the border provisions in the Senate’s bill, which require completing 700 miles of new fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and hiring 20,000 new border agents.
In fact, in a floor speech with other conservatives Monday night, she said the House shouldn’t even negotiate with the Senate on border security, warning that whatever compromise the two chambers come to wouldn’t sufficiently slow or stop illegal immigration.
“There would be full-blown amnesty buried in that bill,” she said Monday. “I think it’s time this body said that amnesty is our deal breaker. We are not doing amnesty, no way, no how, not until we secure the border.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry