WASHINGTON – House Speaker John A. Boehner has signaled that he may embrace a series of limited changes to the nation’s immigration laws in the coming months, giving advocates for change new hope that 2014 might be the year that a bitterly divided Congress reaches a political compromise to overhaul the sprawling system.
The Ohio Republican has, in recent weeks, hired Rebecca Tallent, a longtime immigration adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has long backed broad immigration changes.
Advocates for an overhaul say the hiring, as well as angry comments by Boehner critical of tea party opposition to the recent budget deal in Congress, indicate that he is serious about revamping the immigration system despite deep reservations from GOP conservatives. Aides to Boehner said this week that he was committed to what he calls “step by step” moves to revise immigration laws, which they have declined to specify.
But other House Republicans, who see an immigration overhaul as essential to wooing the Hispanic voters crucial to the party’s fortunes in the 2016 presidential election, said they could move on separate bills that would fast-track legalization for agricultural laborers, increase the number of visas for high-tech workers and provide an opportunity for young immigrants who came to the country illegally as children to become U.S. citizens.
Although the legislation would fall far short of the demands being made by immigration activists, it could provide the beginnings of a deal.
Aides continue to say that Boehner remains opposed to a single, comprehensive bill like the Senate-passed measure that would tighten border security, increase legal immigration and offer an eventual path to U.S. citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. Conservatives are staunchly opposed to sweeping legislation that would offer a path to citizenship.
“The American people are skeptical of big, comprehensive bills, and frankly, they should be,” Boehner told reporters recently. “The only way to make sure immigration reform works this time is to address these complicated issues one step at a time. I think doing so will give the American people confidence that we’re dealing with these issues in a thoughtful way and a deliberative way.”
Nonetheless, immigration activists say they are hopeful that politics may lead Boehner to ignore conservative voices who oppose a path to citizenship.
President Obama has said he is open to the piecemeal approach on immigration favored by House Republicans, but only if it does not abandon comprehensive goals in legislation that passed the Senate last summer. Reconciling the House approach with the broader ambitions of the Senate bill is the biggest hurdle, political strategists say.