SAN DIEGO — What are House Republicans up to?
By releasing a one-page set of principles explaining how they would fix a broken immigration system, GOP lawmakers are doing one of three things – or a combination. They’re either trying to find a pragmatic solution to a vexing issue, or sending a bouquet to Hispanic voters who like immigration reform but dislike Republicans, or calling the Democrats’ bluff with the understanding that – despite the rhetoric – blue-collar workers who oppose legalizing the undocumented won’t let the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt support an immigration reform bill that could be passed by Congress.
Whatever the motive, according to published reports about the GOP plan, there is both good and bad in what Republicans have in mind.
Here’s the good: The debate over citizenship – which was a massive distraction – appears to be over. The Republicans will not give most illegal immigrants an automatic path to citizenship, except for those young people who came to the United States as children. But nor will they put up roadblocks that would prevent most of the newly legalized from becoming citizens. The undocumented would be able to step forward and admit wrongdoing, pay fines and back taxes. Then they would get something that, to many, is just as valuable as citizenship: the right to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation, and the ability to travel outside the country. After that, they could apply for legal permanent residence, commonly known as a green card.
The card may be green, but for the undocumented, this is the golden ticket. Those who want citizenship can pursue it on their own just like any other green card holder, but it wouldn’t come automatically.
None of this would happen until additional border security measures are in place. But it’s still a big step forward for Republicans.
Here’s the bad: Republicans have never been particularly competent or courageous when it comes to going to the root of the problem – employers. For the most part, they refuse to bite the hand that feeds their re-election coffers. They ignore employers who repeatedly defy the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act by knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. Those people need to be hit with more sanctions and harsher penalties. Republicans – and, for that matter, Democrats as well – are especially reluctant to go after the biggest offenders: U.S. homeowners who maintain their lifestyles and fulfill their responsibilities with the help of nannies, housekeepers, gardeners and elderly care providers.
In their one-page set of principles, the furthest that Republicans seem prepared to go concerning employers is to make it mandatory that those who hire workers participate in the government-run employment verification program known as E-Verify.
That’s nothing. The program is not completely accurate and doesn’t extend to homeowners. Besides, in earlier debates over the program, conservatives such as Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, have been willing to soften their hard line to give agribusiness a three-year delay in implementing E-Verify. The whole program is a guard dog with no bark and no teeth.
What’s more, when employer sanctions have come up in the past, that language has a mysterious way of quietly disappearing through GOP-sponsored amendments. When it comes to holding employers accountable, the tough-talking Republican Party is usually weak and ineffective.
Some of the new GOP principles on immigration reform might not be so new after all. It’s great that more Republicans are, for whatever reason, coming around to the idea that the undocumented should have a pathway to legal status. That’s a gutsy position that will not go over well with nativist elements of their party. It’s just too bad that Republicans couldn’t maintain that courage long enough to go after employers.
In the immigration debate, the calculus always comes back to division. There’s the split between those who are willing to do the hard things that could solve problems and improve lives, and those who are content to take the easy way out and find a temporary escape from a political jam.
If the Republican principles on immigration reform are guided by the former, they should be embraced. If they’re led by the latter, they can be ignored.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.