The Washington Post

House conservatives to push own immigration agenda

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), right, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) speak about immigration during a news conference Thursday on Capitol Hill. (Mark Wilson/GETTY IMAGES)

Influential House conservatives signaled Thursday that they will pursue their own course on revising the nation’s immigration laws, a move that some lawmakers warned could derail a comprehensive overhaul that President Obama has made a top priority for his second term.

A week after a bipartisan Senate group introduced an 844-page immigration proposal backed by the White House, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said he would chart a narrower path by introducing several small-scale immigration proposals this week that will begin months of negotiations over proposals from House members and groups.

The announcement was the latest indication of the widening battle among Republicans over what to do about the country’s immigration system and marks perhaps the most serious political challenge to emerge.

Leading conservatives have begun to seek ways to delay and, potentially, defeat the push for the legislation, which includes a path to citizenship for up to 11 million illegal immigrants. Goodlatte’s measures are expected to be more conservative than those included in the bipartisan Senate deal.

The critics’ strategy has come into increasing focus since the Senate plan became public last week, with groups and lawmakers on the right vowing to draw out the debate and offer time for opposition to grow. The emerging coalition is working to step up the political pressure on the measure’s most prominent Republican sponsor, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a potential presidential contender in 2016.

“This process can be long, but it allows every representative and senator to have their constituents’ voices heard,” said Goodlatte, a former immigration lawyer who opposes allowing a path to citizenship. “And by taking a fine-toothed comb through each of the individual issues within the larger immigration debate, it will help us get a better bill that will benefit Americans and provide a workable immigration system.”

The split within the GOP’s conservative wing has set up a difficult political calculation for House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio), who must decide whether to risk angering the Republican base or allow extended debate that could imperil the legislation. Thursday’s developments indicate that Boehner has decided to let the issue play out rather than pushing for a deal closer to the emerging Senate agreement.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the speaker commended Goodlatte for his work and added: “It is crucial that every member . . . and the American people have their voices heard.”

The move alarmed Democrats, who have hoped that the chances are good for broad immigration legislation because GOP leaders want to expand the party’s appeal among Latinos, who overwhelmingly backed Obama last fall. ­Immigration opponents defeated similar legislation in the Senate in 2007 by delaying and amending it.

In recent days, Rubio has been pressing his case for a comprehensive plan in interviews with conservative talk show hosts. Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee, joined Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) in Chicago this week to tout the bipartisan efforts.

But conservative stalwarts, including the Heritage Foundation and National Review magazine, are mounting heavy resistance to what they have labeled government-backed “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.

Heritage, led by former senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a tea party leader once closely aligned with Rubio, is preparing to release a study that is expected to criticize the Senate plan as excessively expensive, partly because it would allow more immigrants to rely on government programs. Supporters of reform dispute that conclusion.

“We want immigration reform, but we don’t think you have to do that through some kind of blanket amnesty,” DeMint said in an interview.

Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), both members of the bipartisan group, said Thursday that they hope the proposal will win majority support from both parties in the Senate, thus putting more pressure on the House.

In addition to a path to citizenship, the Senate proposal calls for increased security along borders and in workplaces, new visa programs for low-skilled and high-tech workers, and the reduction of some family-based visas. A bipartisan group of House members is negotiating a similar comprehensive package with a 15-year path to citizenship.

Obama has deferred to the Senate group over the past two months, hoping that bipartisan momentum would help prevent the pitfalls that sank his gun-control legislation this month.

But on Thursday, appearing in Dallas at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Obama noted Bush’s support for immigration reform and made a pointed reference to Boehner, who was in the audience.

“Even though comprehensive immigration reform has taken a little longer than any of us expected,” Obama said, “I am hopeful that this year, with the help of Speaker Boehner and some of the senators and members of Congress who are here today, that we bring it home for our families and our economy and our security.”

Conservative criticism has been focused most heavily in recent days on Rubio, a tea party favorite who was helped into office by DeMint, one of the leading critics of an immigration deal.

DeMint said in an interview this week that he remains a supporter in general of Rubio. But he added that the senator’s immigration views do not match the views he thought they shared.

Rubio has tried to walk a fine line on immigration, emphasizing that he supports a deliberate process that allows time for debate over the Senate group’s legislation.

In a statement Thursday, the senator said he would examine Goodlatte’s immigration proposals — which focus on visas for foreign agriculture workers and employment verification systems — to determine whether they offer ideas that the Senate can incorporate in its bill.

“These House measures are important starting points for the debate that will take place there,” Rubio said.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group, predicted that Goodlatte’s approach will make it harder for Boehner and Ryan to move forward on a bipartisan approach.

“While modernizers want the Republican Party to achieve a major policy victory and regain its electoral competitiveness with Latino voters, Goodlatte’s move seems intent on dooming both,” Sharry said.

Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.
Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
We'll have half a million voters in South Carolina. I can shake a lot of hands, but I can't shake that many.
Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking to a group of reporters about his strategy to regain support after a poor performance in the last debate
Fact Checker
Sanders’s claim that Clinton objected to meeting with ‘our enemies’
Sanders said that Clinton was critical of Obama in 2008 for suggesting meeting with Iran. In fact, Clinton and Obama differed over whether to set preconditions, not about meeting with enemies. Once in office, Obama followed the course suggested by Clinton, abandoning an earlier position as unrealistic.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.