House Republicans on Wednesday confronted the politically volatile issue of immigration, their ranks divided and their way forward unclear even as national GOP leaders pressured them to act.
At the White House, President Barack Obama met with members of the all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus, as the fate of one of his top second-term priorities rested in the hands of the restive House GOP.
Rep. Raul Ruiz is a member of that caucus. While he did greet Obama on the tarmac at Palm Springs Airport last month, this is his first official meeting with the President.
Ruiz released this statement after the meeting:
"Passing comprehensive immigration reform now is critical for the 36th District and our nation," says Ruiz.
" In our meeting with President Obama today, we discussed how we can build on the bipartisan work of the Senate and pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the House that includes an earned path to citizenship, secures our borders, promotes fairness, protects our workers and businesses, and helps strengthen our economy, especially our local agriculture and tourism economies in the 36th District. It's time for Congress to put partisanship aside and work together toward solutions to reform our broken immigration system and pass a meaningful comprehensive immigration bill now."
Republican lawmakers were convening a special meeting Wednesday afternoon to try to work out a summer strategy following Senate passage late last month of a far-reaching bill. The Senate measure would spend tens of billions on border security, create new legal avenues for workers to come to the U.S., require employers to verify their workers' legal status and establish a path to possible eventual citizenship for the estimated 11 million already here illegally.
The calculus in the Republican-controlled House may be more complex and daunting.
Many of the conservatives who wield power in the House are in districts with few Hispanic voters and are thus insulated from much of the pressure to act on immigration. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, already has rejected the idea of bringing the Senate bill to the House floor. He has pledged that no legislation will move without the support of a majority of his Republicans.
Like many in his conference, Boehner has said border security must come first. And many Republicans prefer a piecemeal, step-by-step approach rather than a single big bill like the one the Senate passed.
But for many, the most vexing issue is what to do about those who are already in the U.S. illegally.
The Senate bill offers a 13-year path for most, contingent on paying fines, learning English and meeting other qualifications. Agriculture workers and people brought to the United States as youths would have a faster route.
In the House, most Republicans are reluctant to endorse citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants, but also shy away from suggestions of deportation.
Ahead of Wednesday's meeting, many lawmakers seemed to be gravitating toward supporting legal status of some kind for millions here illegally. But exactly what and how were far from clear.
For some, a guest worker status would be as far as it goes, while others left open the possibility that once they're in the country legally, immigrants eventually could attain citizenship through existing channels of family or employer sponsorship. Still others were focused on citizenship for people brought to the country as youths, military veterans and perhaps others who've lived in the country for years and proven their contributions to society.
"I wouldn't prohibit forever" people from getting citizenship, said Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla. "I'm a Christian, and restitution and reconciliation's a big deal. If you do something illegal or inappropriate you should be able to resolve that, face the penalty, clear it and be forgiven."
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney fared abysmally with Hispanic and Asian voters last year after suggesting that people in the country illegally could "self-deport." Such suggestions have been heard rarely among Republicans since Romney's loss. But there is a hardcore group in the House that opposes any legal status for people here illegally.
"I'm not going to support any kind of legalization because legalization is amnesty, is eventual citizenship if not instantaneous citizenship, and if we do that we get more law breakers," Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said.
If House Republicans do embrace something short of citizenship, it's not clear Democrats would go along. Republicans control 234 House seats and Democrats 201. Passing legislation requires a majority vote of 218 if all members are voting. Passing immigration legislation is likely to require some Democratic votes, and Democrats insisted Tuesday that nothing but a path to citizenship would suffice.
"America has stood for citizenship," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "We have a Statue of Liberty here. It never has said you come here and you'll be second class. We will not stand for it. It will not happen."
Obama also has said he would not sign a bill without a path to citizenship.