When two Republicans, Sam Johnson and John Carter, deserted a bipartisan immigration reform group this month, the death knell did not sound for immigration reform. One group may have collapsed, but 84 House Republicans have publicly voiced support for granting some type of legal status to the 11 million immigrants here in the country illegally, and 20 others have said they would be willing to consider it—many more than what most media reports suggest.
Other tallies only account for members who have explicitly endorsed a path to citizenship. America’s Voice, a liberal immigration group, lists 26 Republicans who support “immigration reform and citizenship,” leaving out the dozens of others who would support giving undocumented workers legal status short of citizenship.
These Republicans don’t want immigrants here illegally to receive a “special” new pathway to citizenship, but are willing to document them and allow them to stay and work. This means that they would not have to leave the country, but would not be guaranteed citizenship. “The folks who want to have a path to citizenship have held everything else hostage,” Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the Judiciary Committee (which reviews the House’s immigration bills) said recently. “Now we want to say, 'Look we understand what you want, but we think a legal status in the United States but not a special path to citizenship might be appropriate.'"
Even Republicans who once opposed legalization for the undocumented, like Frank Wolf, are relaxing their position. "In 1986,” he says, “I opposed legislation that granted amnesty to some illegal immigrants. We have seen that the measure did not work to keep people from violating our current immigration laws.” Now he says that he won’t deport people, and suggests “legalization in so far as you have worker permits and not citizenship.”
Often they support legalization because of the sheer impossibility of deporting millions of people. Pat Meehan (R-PA), a member of the Homeland Security Committee, for example, said earlier this summer that "we've got to figure out some kind of earned legal status for people who are here. It's impractical to assume that we're going to move 12 million people out of our borders."
They’re also listening to farmers and businessmen, who don’t want to lose their workers. Bill Huizenga (R-MI) told constituents, “Here’s the dirty little secret: We need them. We need them in agriculture.”
Some House Republicans, known for maintaining that illegal immigrants should not be rewarded for breaking the law, now speak of “reconciliation” with the law or “earned legalization.” “If there’s going to be a chance to create a legal path,” says Steve Southerland (R-FL) “there has to be a recognition of the wrong done.”
Most Republicans, however, demand increased border security as a prerequisite before any kind of immigration reform moves forward.
Whether liberal immigration advocates would cooperate with legalization short of citizenship is an open question. Recently a prominent advocate from America’s Voice said that “an architecture of ‘no special pathway to citizenship’—if the details were right—could be the basis for bipartisan negations [sic] in the House,” only to walk back his statements after the Wall Street Journal reported them. “To be clear,” he now claims, “I did not say or imply that legalization without citizenship is acceptable.”