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House Republicans give ground on immigration reform a bit too late

 

Last fall, many read Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney – who, according to Reuters, had advocated “ ‘self-deportation,’ … essentially call(ing) on the government to make life so miserable for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants, most of whom are Hispanics, that many would leave on their own” – as a sort of mandate to the GOP to rethink its hardline stance on illegal immigration as the nation’s Latino electorate grows in numbers and power.

Since then, in late June, the U.S. Senate actually managed to pass a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform measure, originally crafted by the so-called Gang of Eight, which includes Arizona Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake, and Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet. Among other measures, the bill would tighten U.S. border security while creating a new Resident Provisional Immigrant program – essentially a conditional path to citizenship for those who have been in the country illegally since Dec. 31, 2011, who don’t have a significant criminal record and who pay applicable fines and fees. Resident Provisional Immigrants would be eligible for a green card after 10 years, and full citizenship after 13; illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and farm workers would both have a quicker path.

Farmworkers rally for immigration reform in Salinas, Calif. this March.

“I’m asking you to consider that we have an unacceptable situation as it is today and we need to all work together no matter where we are in the political spectrum to try to resolve this issue,” McCain told 150 people at a Tucson town hall meeting in August.

Despite all the GOP soul-searching, many Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives have been reluctant to budge on the issue of immigration, dismissing the Senate measure as unacceptable amnesty. For every “valedictorian” born to illegal immigrants who would benefit from the measure, there are "another 100 out there … [with] … calves the size of cantaloupes ... hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert," Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, reportedly told newsmax.com in July, drawing criticism from both sides of the aisle.

But now, even in the House, a small but growing number of Republicans are beginning to embrace the idea of some kind of legalization, reports the Associated Press:

"There should be a pathway to citizenship — not a special pathway and not no pathway," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told ABC 4 Utah after speaking at a recent town hall meeting in his district. "But there has to be a legal, lawful way to go through this process that works, and right now it doesn't."

Chaffetz’s position is an interesting one. Just a couple of years ago, when I reported on the Utah Compact to redirect the state and national immigration discussion toward a solution that recognizes undocumented workers’ economic and community contributions and their humanity, Utah’s Congressional delegation was studiously keeping its distance. University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless told me then that he expected Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who had sponsored a version of the DREAM Act in the past, would be especially careful about espousing the Compact to avoid being perceived as not conservative enough and thus vulnerable to ultra-conservative Chaffetz should he decide to run against Hatch for the GOP Senate nomination in the 2012 election. (Utah’s primary structure tends to favor extremists; a similar fate befell conservative Utah Sen. Bob Bennett when he was ousted by Tea-Party favorite Mike Lee in 2010.)

But with plans to step down after this Senate term ends, Hatch also appears to be back in conciliatory mode, voting for the Senate measure and even participating in a mid-August roundtable convened in Utah by FWD.us, a group that advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, co-founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (FWD.us has used some controversial tactics to drum up conservative support for reform – which would help broaden the legal talent pool for tech companies like Facebook – including sponsoring ads that promote the Keystone XL.)

Some of the shift in the House has to do with redistricting and changing demographics, as well as the backing of the business community and intense lobbying by immigrant rights groups, reports the Associated Press. But it’s not clear yet what difference it will make: there’s little chance the House will take up the comprehensive measure, though there has been some momentum building behind addressing reforms through piecemeal bills, with possible floor debates in October and November. Still, most House Republicans are focused on other issues, reports the Los Angeles Times; it’s also uncertain what sort of path to legal status might emerge, or whether it could be reconciled with the Senate’s vision.

Worse, the escalating conflict in Syria has pushed immigration reform efforts so far down on the list of priorities that they face scuttlement by 2014 Congressional election-year politics.

Still, advocates see hope in House Republicans’ weakening opposition. "I think there's a lot of space (for compromise) there," Clarissa Martinez, director of civic engagement and immigration at the National Council of La Raza, told the Associated Press. "And that's why I'm optimistic that once they start grappling more with details, that's when things start getting more real."

Sarah Gilman is High Country News' associate editor. Image courtesy of Flickr user Steve Rhodes