House Republicans took a giant step forward last week when they unveiled their one-page "immigration principles."
For immigration advocates, including Senate Democratic and Republican reformers, the principles fall far short of addressing the plight of 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. For hardliners, including many Republicans in the House, they go too far.
But for a party that less than two years ago said these 11 million people, many of whom have lived in the U.S. for decades, should "self-deport," the principles signal that the door may be open to possible comprehensive immigration reform in 2014.
Reform is long overdue. Keeping 11 million people in the shadows of illegality is dragging down the nation's economy and hurting families. And from a purely political standpoint, for the Republican Party, which has opposed reforms, it is a necessity if the GOP hopes to be relevant to a growing block of Latino voters.
"It's important to act on immigration reform because we're focused on jobs and economic growth, and this is about jobs and growth," Speaker John Boehner said after the House leadership team, which includes Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, introduced the principles at the party's annual retreat.
In many ways, the Republican House principles reflect the bipartisan immigration reform bill that cleared the Senate last year. While vague in detail, the principles offer a way for undocumented immigrants to live legally in the U.S.
The Republican principles call for these immigrants to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families, without access to public benefits. Border security, a goal that has eluded both Republican and Democratic administrations for decades, and undefined enforcement triggers also are included in the principles.
The major difference between the House principles and the Senate reform bill is the question of giving people who are living in the U.S. illegally a special path to citizenship. Bipartisan Senate immigration reformers say yes. House Republicans, including McCarthy, say no. A notable Republican exception is Rep. David Valadao, who represents portions of Kern County. Valadao has sided with Democrats favoring a plan that includes the eventual possibility of citizenship.
While the Republican principles provide a path to legal residency and citizenship to young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, no such accommodation is made for their parents. Some advocates call this a cynical ploy to divide the immigration reform movement.
It is not clear, however, if the Republican principles would allow the parents, or older immigrants to use pathways that currently exist for all immigrants to become citizens.
Some Democratic reformers are digging in their heels, saying they will only consider a plan that includes a pathway to citizenship. And Republicans, including Boehner, insist the principles, which reject negotiating with the Senate on its comprehensive bill, are "as far as we are willing to go."
But cooler heads, ranging from President Obama to Republican Sen. John McCain, rightly are dismissing these political theatrics, calling the principles a good foundation to begin immigration reform talks.
We agree. Chest thumping may be necessary to appease the hardliners in both parties. But it should not prevent the passage this year of a reform package that brings sense and fairness to U.S. immigration policies, and shows compassion to the millions of families that now live under the daily threat of deportation.