Immigration Split Emerges in House: GOP embraces step-by-step approach


Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), right, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) speak about immigration during a news conference Thursday on Capitol Hill. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), right, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee,

House Republicans coalesced Wednesday around a piecemeal approach to overhauling immigration laws, bucking pressure from the Senate and the White House to move quickly—and leaving unsolved the fate of millions of illegal immigrants currently in the U.S.

Emerging from a closed-door meeting, GOP lawmakers were united on one front. Few had any appetite to take up a sweeping immigration bill that passed the Senate with bipartisan support. That sets the House up to rewrite immigration laws bit by bit.

“We need to do it in a very thorough way, we want to do it the right way,” said Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), a champion for an immigration overhaul. “We don’t want to rush anything.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and others in GOP leadership issued a joint statement saying, “Today House Republicans affirmed that rather than take up the flawed legislation rushed through the Senate, House committees will continue their work on a step-by-step, common-sense approach to fixing what has long been a broken system.”

GOP leaders wouldn’t say whether legislation would be considered before the August recess. Members repeatedly pressed Mr. Boehner at the meeting to promise not to bring any legislation to the floor without the support of a majority of Republicans. He did so, people in the meeting said.

The GOP meeting came the same day former President George W. Bush, a Republican who has supported a path to citizenship for immigrants in the U.S. illegally, addressed a naturalization ceremony in Dallas and called for a “positive resolution” to the immigration debate. “I hope during the debate that we keep a benevolent spirit in mind and we understand the contributions immigrants make to our country,” said Mr. Bush, whose efforts to remake the immigration system fell short when he was president.

So far, though, that sentiment doesn’t appear to hold much sway with House Republicans from deep red districts. “It’s actually the number 10 issue on a top-10 list of issues,” for my constituents, Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican, said of efforts to revamp the immigration system.

One of the sharpest fault lines is over how to deal with millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally. The Senate plan lays out a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. House Democratic leaders said they’re not inclined to vote for anything less than that. Republicans, however, are divided. While some have said they’re open to allowing such a path, many have balked.

GOP members, particularly those on the Judiciary Committee, are debating whether to legalize undocumented immigrants, but so far no one has stepped up to sponsor a bill.

“I am not here to reward people for illegal behavior,” said Rep. Paul Gosar (R., Ariz.), who said the House shouldn’t feel pressured into producing a bill tackling the question of what to do with the 11 million illegal immigrants if border security hasn’t first been satisfactorily resolved. “Everyone worries they’re in the shadows—well, they chose to be in the shadows by doing this illegally.”

Rep. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican, said he envisions a guest-worker program that would allow unauthorized immigrants to gain legal status to work when the border is secure, but bar them from getting government benefits or voting rights. “Citizenship is not on the table, it’s a nonstarter,” Mr. Salmon said.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) said a citizenship provision couldn’t pass the GOP-controlled House, but said a majority of Republicans likely could support some type of legalization for those already here. “If we’re going to fix the system, we have to deal with the people who are here.”

At least a small handful of Republicans said they still supported allowing illegal immigrants already in the U.S. to become citizens.

“I support a pathway to citizenship because I don’t believe we should have a second class of citizens,” said Rep. Spencer Bachus (R., Ala.). Everyone living in the United States should feel invested in the country, he said. Denying that would create “an underclass and I don’t believe that’s what America is all about.”

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