August 22, 2013

For some time now, the House conservative posture on immigration reform has been largely defined by GOP Reps. Bob Goodlatte and Steve King. Goodlatte has given voice to the widespread GOP desire to stall reform by addressing it in pieces. King has amplified the raw nativism below the surface of opposition to reform for some — though by no means most — on the right. Fair or not, King has helped tar the GOP among Latinos with an image the party wants to shake.

So it’s worth taking note when a conservative House Republican makes the case for comprehensive immigration reform on humanitarian grounds.

Rep. John Carter of Texas, the chair of the Homeland Security Committee, is a member of the House gang of seven, which is set to unveil a compromise with citizenship and strict conditions. He is a border state conservative who opposed reform last time. In a press conference reported on by the Killeen Daily Herald, he made this case:

“Part of what’s wrong with our immigration system is that we keep trying to patch it up,” Carter said. “We need comprehensive reform.”

Reform includes taking into account the needs of business owners, especially in the technology industry, where many companies hire employees from overseas to fill the sector’s jobs. [...]

Reform also includes tackling the difficult problem of just what to do with the nation’s millions of undocumented immigrants. Carter said part of the group’s reforms would ask them to admit they entered the country without proper documentation.

“We don’t want to reward bad behavior,” Carter said. “They are going to have to admit that they’ve come here illegally.” [...]

Carter also called for compassion for those the policy will impact, pointing to the presence of local religious leaders present at the meeting Monday

“The evangelical community wants to remind people that we are dealing with human beings with families,” Carter said. “They should be treated with respect and compassion.”

Dems see in these comments a way that conservative Republicans — if they wanted to, of course — could counter-program the likes of Goodlatte and King. Unlike Goodlatte and his call for piecemeal reform, Carter describes the problem as a multi-faceted one that must be addressed with multiple solutions, rather than just “patching it up.” Unlike King, Carter humanizes the issue by allowing that what do do about the 11 million is about “families.” Nor does he see this as being contradicted by his insistence that they will have to admit wrongdoing — a rebuff to the right’s screams of “amnesty.”

Dems take note when other Republicans are willing to address the issue in human terms, such as Rep. Trey Gowdy, who has said: “Peoples’ desire to improve their lives resonates with me, no matter where they’re from.” Along these lines, Conservative bishops and priests are ramping up efforts to preach the humanitarian virtues of reform, in hopes House Republicans are listening.

Meanwhile, the invocation of an economic rationale dovetails with reformers’ hopes that agriculture and high tech interests will ask their Republican Congressmen to support reform for the good of their local economies.

There are no indications Carter — one of the gang of seven Republicans who initially sought to keep work on reform quiet to avoid blowback — is facing instant political destruction over his advocacy.

None of this is to say Carter’s pitch makes it any more likely House Republicans will pass anything comprehensive. But his language is another reminder that they could find their way to supporting comprehensive reform if they wanted to.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.