By Donna Cassata
WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders poised to revive efforts to overhaul the immigration system with new broad policy principles are facing a direct challenge from a GOP senator who is warning against a headlong rush toward reform.
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, delivered a 30-page package to all 232 House Republicans on Wednesday that offers a point-by-point rebuttal to the expected standards that House Speaker John Boehner and other leaders plan to circulate this week among GOP members at their annual retreat.
Sessions warned of the negative impact of proposed changes to immigration policy on U.S. workers, taxpayers and the rule of law as the House leaders look at legalization for some of the 11 million immigrants living here illegally. Sessions and other opponents argue that legal status and work authorization still amounts to amnesty.
The GOP starting point is a statement of principles that is expected to focus on border and interior security, legalization with the requirement that immigrants pay fines and back taxes, and ensuring that President Barack Obama enforces any law, according to lawmakers, congressional aides and outside advocates, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the principles being drafted.
Republican leaders plan to circulate the principles on Thursday at the GOP caucus’ retreat in Cambridge, Md.
Responding to Obama’s renewed call for immigration legislation and the positive signals from House GOP leaders, Sessions said Republicans “must end the lawlessness — not surrender to it — and they must defend the legitimate interests of millions of struggling American workers.”
The package, including a memo from Sessions, an analysis from his staff on the Senate Budget and Judiciary committees and a summary of opposition from conservatives, was delivered shortly before House Republicans left Washington.
“We’re going to outline our standards, principles of immigration reform and have a conversation with our members, and once that conversation’s over we’ll have a better feel for what members have in mind,” Boehner told reporters this week.
Separately, several lawmakers are working on legislation dealing with children of parents in the United States illegally, and visas for guest workers.
Republicans insist that the party must pass reforms and address the issue of the 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally to be competitive in presidential elections. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who suggested that immigrants “self-deport,” won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.
“It’s no secret we have millions of people who are here, who are unlawful and we can’t deny that and I think that’s something that has to be dealt with,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who has been working on legislation, “but lot of components have to be dealt with.”
The Senate last year passed a comprehensive, bipartisan bill that addressed border security, provided enforcement measures and offered a path to citizenship for those living here illegally. The measure stalled in the GOP-led House, where leaders want to take a more piecemeal approach.
Sessions’ analysis said increasing the number of immigrants would hurt an already weak economy, lower wages and increase unemployment. He cited White House adviser Gene Sperling’s comment earlier this month that the economy has three people looking for every job opening.
He said the House GOP leaders’ plan that’s taking shape would grant work permits almost immediately to those here illegally, giving them a chance to compete with unemployed Americans for any job. He said it would lead to a surge in the future flow of unskilled workers and would provide amnesty to a larger number of immigrants in the country illegally, giving them a chance to apply for citizenship through green cards.
“House Republicans, in crafting immigration principles, should reply to the president’s immigration campaign with a simple message: Our focus is to help unemployed Americans get back to work, not to grant amnesty or to answer the whims of immigration activists and CEOs,” Sessions said in his memo.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of Sessions’ critique.
Notably, two members of the House leadership, Boehner and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., spoke about dealing with the broken immigration system in their responses to Obama’s State of the Union address. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Wednesday that she spoke to Boehner about the principles but not specific legislation.
“I believe it is a good-faith effort to find common ground, and we look forward to seeing what they are,” Pelosi said.
Democrats and many immigration overhaul proponents, including labor unions, have pushed hard for a path to citizenship and may not be satisfied with legalization.
Unclear is how rank-and-file Republicans will respond, especially with a great deal of GOP wariness about whether Obama can be trusted to enforce an immigration law.
Obama’s waiver or suspension of provisions of his four-year-old health care law have increased suspicions among Republicans, and Sessions’ analysis highlighted the president’s State of the Union comments that he might act unilaterally on some issues if Congress balks.