AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

One of the enduring mysteries about the Republican position on immigration has been this: When they say they won’t move forward with reform because they need more evidence that Obama will enforce the law, how exactly could this be demonstrated to their satisfaction?

Today we got perhaps the clearest indication yet that what Republicans really mean by this is that they cannot embrace any form of legalization for the 11 million because Obama isn’t deporting enough of them from the interior.

This position has not always been publicly acknowledged. Senate Republicans did come close to spelling it out in a letter to the president some time ago. But House Republicans — whose leader, John Boehner, does seem to want reform — have generally preferred to say that they can’t embrace immigration reform because the President is flouting the law on Obamacare.

Today, House Republicans got a chance to grill Department of Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson (who has undertaken a review of deportation policy) at a hearing, and the true GOP position on immigration was on stark display. Elise Foley reports on the questioning that came from Judiciary Committee chair Bob Goodlatte and Steve “cantaloupe calves” King:

“The Obama administration has taken unprecedented, and most likely unconstitutional, steps in order to shut down the enforcement of our immigration laws for millions of unlawful and criminal aliens not considered high enough ‘priorities,'” Goodlatte said in his opening statement. […]

The indication on Thursday was that House Republicans are standing by their argument that the president cannot be trusted to enforce immigration law. Because of that distrust, Goodlatte said, it is “exceedingly difficult for Congress to fix our broken immigration system.”

“Unfortunately, we can only expect DHS’s efforts to evade its immigration law enforcement responsibilities to escalate,” he continued. “President Obama has asked Secretary Johnson to perform an inventory of the Department’s current enforcement practices to see how it can conduct them more ‘humanely.’ These are simply code words for further ratcheting down enforcement of our immigration laws.”

Rep. Steve King demanded that Johnson tell the committee what the review would do. “Can you describe the plan the president has asked you to withhold?” he asked. Johnson said he could not, because the review is not yet complete. King pressed harder, asking whether the review would grant full categories of immigrants reprieve from deportation. Johnson did not give information on what the review would entail exactly, though he said the current Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for young undocumented immigrants — which King called “Deferred Action for Criminal Aliens” — already required individual reviews.

“Deferred Action for Criminal Aliens”! That Steve King is so crazy! But is the overall GOP position really all that different? House Republicans passed Steve King’s 2013 measure to block Obama from using prosecutorial discretion to defer the deportation of DREAMers. Yes, the House GOP principles support legalization in principle for the 11 million, provided certain conditions are met. But House Republicans have not offered, or voted on, any proposal that would actually accomplish that, and it remains unclear if there are any circumstances under which they could support any practical legalization proposals in the real world.

Meanwhile, as today’s hearing demonstrated, the primary reason for the House GOP unwillingness to move forward on any legalization proposal of their own is that Obama can’t be trusted to enforce immigration laws. The specific critique advanced by Goodlatte and King was aimed at the Obama administration’s enforcement priorities. Both described any moves in the direction of deprioritizing the enforcement of low-level offenders as a general failure to enforce the law.

It’s true that the administration has deprioritized the enforcement of low-level offenders with lives here. It’s true that the administration may take further steps in that direction soon, though we don’t know how far they will go. But even as deportations from the interior have gone down, deportations from the border have gone up. The Republican position on immigration, as expressed here today, is that this is bad policy. Republicans are basically saying that deprioritizing removals from the interior, even for low-level offenders, and refocusing more resources on the border, is an unacceptable response to the immigration crisis, and that more removals of people with lives here are required to prove a general commitment to enforcing the law. In other words, Republicans won’t move forward with any kind of legalization for the 11 million because Obama isn’t deporting enough of them right now.

That’s a nonsensical position — Republicans have effectively boxed themselves into it — and in some ways, this actually makes Obama look bad, too. He is currently delaying unilateral action on deportations on the theory that giving House Republicans more space could allow them to move forward legislatively. House GOP leaders don’t have to be constrained by this rhetorical straitjacket, but today’s events make it harder to imagine that they have any intention of slipping out of it. If Obama thought giving House Republicans space would cause them to look more kindly on his serial lawbreaking — thus making them more willing to move forward on their own — it looks like he was mistaken.