Proponents of immigration reform are more optimistic these days, justifiably or not, about the prospects of immigration reform.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), second from left Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), second from right, had interesting things to say about immigration reform. (Bill O’Leary / Washington Post)

Slamming the Senate immigration bill has become like the term “amnesty” — a tactic used to engender opposition to immigration reform but also to slide over the popularity of the component parts of comprehensive reform that remain popular with GOP voters.

Dan Conston, spokesman for the American Action Network (a conservative group leading the charge for reform) tells me, “Because the Senate went first, and it’s been
defined negatively in the eyes of primary voters, the House has the opportunity
to chart a different path and establish a different level of credibility. They
need to take a step-by-step, methodical approach.” So instead of fighting the perceptions, however false, about the Senate bill immigration, proponents are using it to their advantage to increase the chances of a House bill.

Conston says that the Senate bill’s sullied reputation on the right “doesn’t make reform any less likely — I think it makes it more likely. Their opportunity (and challenge) is to craft solutions that have concrete, measurable metrics and ones that meaningfully remove discretion from the Obama administration enforcing laws. Our voters don’t believe they will enforce the laws.”

In other words, figure out how to harness dissatisfaction on the right to gain conservative support for a House alternative. Cynics might call this an effort to cosmetically spruce up the Senate bill, but then most of the immigration debate is about slogans and appearances rather than substance. There is a reason for that. AAN has a poll that is only the latest to highlight that what’s in the Senate bill is more popular than the idea of the Senate bill:

A majority (51%) of GOP primary voters favor passage of generic “comprehensive immigration reform. Just 26% oppose and 23% are unsure. Six in ten GOP primary voters (59%) favor an “earned pathway to legal status, but not full citizenship”

Eight in ten (80%) GOP primary voters favor a specific detailed proposal, including 74% of  “extremely” conservative and 79% of “strong Tea Party supporter” voters: “Would you favor or oppose allowing undocumented immigrants the opportunity to earn legal status if they pass a criminal background check, pay a fine, pay current and back taxes, learn English, go to the back of the line in the application process, and are not  allowed to receive any taxpayer paid benefits?”

Six in ten (58%) GOP primary voters believe that this specific detailed proposal is not amnesty, while just 35% believe it is. This includes a majority of “extremely” conservative (52%) and “strong Tea Party supporter” (54%) voters.

Even an earned pathway to citizenship gets a solid plurality of support from GOP primary voters (49 percent). The AAN pollsters stress border security “metrics,” seven concrete steps to earned legal status (all of which are in one form or another in the Senate bill) and e-Verify. However, that shouldn’t rule out an eventual pathway to citizenship if the “sequencing” (the order of triggers and the point legal status is obtained) can be worked out.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who is now seen as the best hope for comprehensive reform in the House, is stressing the “piecemeal” approach — that is, breaking the bill into parts as the Washington Examiner reports. (“He wants to see immigration reform done piecemeal, with individual bills addressing issues like border security and citizenship for illegal immigrants separately, to avoid the kinds of compromises necessary to achieve a comprehensive bill. . . . In the grand scheme of things, Ryan wants a grand scheme: for the component parts of immigration reform, the various individual bills, to be brought to the House floor simultaneously this fall.”)

From my vantage point, Ryan has it right. Conservative proponents of comprehensive reform are kidding themselves, I think, if they believe they can deal with this issue or even pass legislation without an earned citizenship provision. Democrats will not sign on and instead will decry it as “second-class citizenship.” Instead, the most effective strategy in the House, I would suggest, is to clear up concerns about the so-called triggers and tighten up other aspects of the Senate bill (e.g. access to federal benefits), but leave the potential for citizenship available after those triggers are satisfied. Is that possible? Maybe. But certainly immigration reform is, yes, still alive.