How to understand the GOP predicament on immigration

The politics of immigration inside the House GOP caucus can seem perplexing and opaque. Fortunately, Paul Ryan just gave an interview to Chuck Todd that pulls back the curtain and reveals how Republicans see the political minefield that lies between them and getting to Yes.

The good news: Ryan’s interview reveals a real desire to figure out a way to get to a deal. The bad news: Republicans are still far from crossing bridges that will be necessary if compromise is ever going to happen.

Ryan confirms GOP “principles” will include legal status for the 11 million, but he also says this will be a ”probationary status” to make sure the 11 million will not be “preferenced over people who did follow the laws.” It’s important to have confirmation that there will be a way out of the shadows. But the probationary period idea is problematic. Details will matter, but it would probably allow for people to get the right to work up front, but they could be kicked off of probationary status if certain security benchmarks aren’t met.

Advocates see this as bad policy: Why would undocumenteds step forward, if they know they can lose work status and get deported later because of nothing that they did, but only because Washington failed to decide certain metrics had been fulfilled?

However, Ryan also says the undocumented will be allowed to work as part of “probationary” status before security benchmarks are met. “You can be on probation,” Ryan says, “while the border is getting secured.”

This is important. One big unknown is whether Republicans will insist on a bunch of security triggers being met before undocumenteds can come out of the shadows. If so, that’s trouble, for the reasons I’ve explained here. But Ryan appears to be floating a way around this problem: Undocumenteds will be allowed to work on probation while the border is being secured, but will not enjoy legal status.

So Republicans think it’s politically too hard to grant actual legalization before triggers are met, let alone citizenship, because the right will call it ”amnesty” (as Ryan himself does). That’s bad. But this also tells us Republicans are looking for some way to get the undocumented out of the shadows — even though the right will denounce anything like this as “amnesty.” That’s good!

The final important thing Ryan says concerns citizenship. Ryan repeats there will be “no special pathway.” But this does not preclude the undocumented getting citizenship eventually. Ryan says these folks will simply have to get to the “back of the line” for a green card — leading to citizenship. As the New Democrat Network’s Simon Rosenberg puts it: “The House Republicans are talking about a path to legalization, but this does not contemplate a permanent second class status.”

It is here where the possibility for a deal lies. If you grant legalization to the 11 million, and clear out some of the legal channels to citizenship that now exist, you could see Dems accepting this deal under certain conditions. That would be a big concession by Dems, who want citizenship up front. But it is hard to see Dems accepting it if Republicans also won’t grant legalization up front under reasonable conditions, for the reasons explained above. We just don’t know if they will get to this point. But they are groping towards it.

In the end, what all of this tells us that Republicans are actually grappling with the policy issues on the table. That alone is a step forward. It is a reminder that the intense push for reform from many major GOP-aligned constituencies — agricultural interests; big business; evangelicals — is really starting to matter, perhaps more than all the yelling coming from the no-amnesty-at-all-costs brigade.

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