October 18, 2013
Eric Cantor (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
Eric Cantor (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Yesterday, President Obama declared he wants action on immigration reform “this year.” Today, Byron York reports that the prospects for reform are still alive, noting there is a core group of House Republicans still working on a series of proposals, though they are shrouded in great secrecy. These efforts, York reports, have the blessing of GOP leaders.

But is there really a way forward? Yes, there is.  It’s a longshot, but in an interview with me, Frank Sharry, the executive director of pro-immigration America’s Voice, explained how it would work.

The whole thing turns on this: Sharry tells me that if Eric Cantor goes through with his plan to introduce the so-called “KIDS Act,” which gives citizenship only to the one million DREAMers, immigration advocates and many Dems probably would be prepared to accept it — if Republicans are also willing to go to conference negotiations.

“If the KIDS Act is good on the substance, Republicans will be surprised at how much love it gets from immigration reform advocates,” Sharry tells me. “Many of us would encourage Democrats to vote for the KIDS Act, if in exchange Republicans agree to a bicameral negotiation where all issues are on the table, including legalization and citizenship for the 11 million. This would be a stepping stone.”

Even if the KIDS Act is good on substance — which turns on details involving eligibility requirements for citizenship — it would fall far short of what immigration advocates are hoping for, because it doesn’t provide legalization for the 11 million or an achievable path to citizenship. But here’s why Sharry says it’s acceptable as a stepping stone to conference.

The idea is to give Republicans a viable path forward. As York reports, House Republicans are still under pressure from conservatives to not support anything that places legalization before border security. So under this scenario, House Republicans could pass security measures piecemeal, then pass the KIDS Act — which doesn’t include legalization, isn’t “amnesty,” doesn’t run afoul of the security-before-legalization rule, and could conceivably get a majority of House Republicans.

Yes, some conservatives even oppose the KIDS Act, and some would scream with anger at the notion that House Republicans would enter into negotiations. But the point is, the only way any reform passes the House is if conservatives are stiff-armed, at least a bit, at some point. This might be the easiest way to do it, because it doesn’t even require Republicans to vote for legalization.

Once in conference, Sharry and other advocates will insist on citizenship. But the unspoken truth is that there are ways to get agreement on something approximating comprehensive reform by embracing legalization with only some citizenship, as I’ve laid out here. Even GOP Rep. Bob Goodlatte has endorsed that outcome. Full citizenship is preferable, but this alternate outcome is better than the status quo.

The overriding idea here is that House GOP leaders such as Cantor and Paul Ryan seem to want to pass something that demonstrates a compassionate interest in fixing immigration. Otherwise, Republicans probably wouldn’t be working on the KIDS Act in the first place. Given the state of the House GOP caucus, Republicans can’t pass anything other than security measures on their own. So if they want to pass something, they’d need Dems. The only thing that could get Dems and a majority of House Republicans (to avoid breaking the Hastert Rule) is the KIDS Act. The rest unfolds from there.

Of course, right now, House Republicans are very angry about losing the shutdown fight, and are inexplicably claiming they won’t pass immigration reform as a result. Hopefully that anger will fade, but in the end, if GOP leaders don’t actually want to pass anything, all of this is moot. Indeed, all of it turns on the bigger question: Do House GOP leaders actually want to broaden the party’s appeal, even if it means angering conservatives in the process? Immigration reform’s fate will answer that question, because there is a way this could get done if GOP leaders want it 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.