The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What if the big conservative backlash to immigration reform never materializes?

Immigration advocates are circulating this video of GOP Rep. Aaron Schock talking to constituents, in which the Illinois Congressman appears to come close to embracing a framework for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship. They see it as one of several signs that are a cause for optimism about reform’s chances:

In the video — whose authenticity was confirmed by a spokesman for Schock, though he couldn’t say who shot it — the Congressman seems to embrace a framework that would provide for legalization at the outset (in the form of probationary status, as in the emerging House gang of seven plan), in which undocumented immigrants pay a penalty and back taxes, and then a path to citizenship that is contingent on border security metrics being met.

It’s not clear what border security triggers Schock would require — I was unable to get him on the phone — but this is noteworthy. Schock appears prepared to seriously consider a framework that holds the possibility of real bipartisan consensus, and it’s one ardent foes of reform reject. Some conservatives insist on triggers being met even before probationary status begins. Whatever Schock’s fully fleshed out position ends up being, hearing a GOP Congressman discuss comprehensive reform in these terms is encouraging.

This comes after GOP Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida gave an interview to the Orlando Sentinel in which he also embraced comprehensive immigration reform that includes citizenship. Webster, to be clear, wants security before even provisional legalization. But the willingness to embrace citizenship at all holds the possibility of a route to getting just enough passed in the House to get to conference negotiations.

Many liberals think there’s simply no chance House Republicans could ever embrace anything that includes a path to citizenship. I’ve expressed skepticism about this, too. However — and go ahead, scoff all you want at this — some immigration reform advocates and Dems in talks with House Republicans believe that’s an overly simplistic view. They think we need to take seriously the fact that House Republicans have been genuinely committed for a long time to the position that any form of citizenship — no matter what the conditions or triggers for it — represents rewarding lawbreaking, period, full stop. They think that while it will be very difficult for them to get from there to supporting reform, the possibility that they are trying to get there should not be dismissed entirely, and that there is still an outside chance that it could happen.

Central to this possibility is the belief that Republican lawmakers will ultimately have no choice but to acknowledge that the status quo is unacceptable to them. (As GOP pollster Whit Ayres told me yesterday, this is key to understanding what GOP voters really think about reform.) Reform advocates believe some GOP lawmakers are genuinely undecided and looking to see whether they face any serious blowback over the recess before determining how to proceed. As conservative Byron York puts it:

If August goes quietly on the immigration front, some Republican lawmakers may return to Washington with the sense that voters back home don’t really mind that immigration reform goes forward. And then it will. If, on the other hand, lawmakers hear expressions of serious opposition at town meetings, their conclusion will be just the opposite. And reform will likely go down to defeat.

If this is right, the school of thought that immigration reform is inevitably doomed — that Republicans are simply looking for a way to kill it blamelessly — may be just flat out wrong. It may die in the end, but that doesn’t mean that was preordained.