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House GOP Leaders Begin To Move On Immigration


Another priority of the president's that's likely to come up tonight is an immigration overhaul. The Senate last year passed a comprehensive bipartisan bill that promise eventual citizenship for millions currently in the country without legal status. While House leaders don't appear ready to go that far, they do seem ready to start a conversation.

And joining me from the Capitol is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna. And, David, a lot of people thought revamping immigration wasn't going to happen at all, especially during this election year with a Republican-run House. What's happened to change that?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Audie, I think with House Republicans, it's really been more a matter of when, not if they're going to do something on immigration. Their biggest concern is not hurting their members by bringing up this divisive issue and seeing it used by primary challengers against them. So last year was not a good time to do this. But this year, especially once the primaries have taken place, might be a safer bet because I think House Speaker John Boehner truly does want to do something on immigration.

He's well aware that his party has turned off most Latino voters, and Boehner recently hired an immigration expert as a top adviser. And this week, he plans to present some ideas about what to do on immigration at a House Republican retreat on Maryland's eastern shore. Here's what Boehner had to say about that today when asked by reporters.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: We're going to outline our standards, principles of immigration reform and have a conversation with our members. And once that conversation is over, we've got a better feel for what members have in mind.

WELNA: Boehner also said he'll have more to say on how House Republicans might be moving forward on immigration once those conversations do take place. I think he's kind of testing the political waters here before jumping in.

CORNISH: And the House Speaker referred to immigration principles being presented to the House Republicans. What exactly are those principles?

WELNA: Well, they haven't yet been made public. But according to those who've seen them, they boil down to four areas: securing the border more effectively, expanding the number of visas for skilled and unskilled foreign workers, better enforcement of the E-Verify screening system that checks to see if job applicants have legal status to work. And finally, and probably most importantly, what to do about the 11 million immigrants who are in the country now with no legal status.

Republican leaders seem to be leaning now towards some path to legalization for these people but not the citizenship approved by the Senate. But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has also been working with Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte on a measure that would allow children brought here illegally by their parents to attain citizenship. I talked with Cantor this afternoon.

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR: Our country has never held kids liable for the illegal acts of their parents. And I've been working with Chairman Goodlatte to see how we can craft a measure that really speaks to that issue.

WELNA: But Cantor did not offer any details about when or how citizenship might become available to those who came as children.

CORNISH: David, how is this all being received by long-time opponents of more lenient immigration rules?

WELNA: Well, Audie, they are not at all happy about this. I think they see it as a capitulation to pressure from outside groups and Democrats, and a lot of them see it as just another form of amnesty. Here's what Louie Gohmert, a conservative from East Texas, said to me today about all the talk of taking up an immigration overhaul.

REPRESENTATIVE LOUIE GOHMERT: We need to wait for the president to secure the border as confirmed by the border states. And as soon as he'll do that, I guarantee you, we will get a deal worked out very quickly. But until he does that, we shouldn't even talk about it.

WELNA: And it's talk like that that makes a lot of Republicans wary about even trying to do immigration this year lest it splinter the party before the midterm elections.

CORNISH: So what are the prospects, really, that they'll act this year?

WELNA: Well, I'd say the prospects are good that the House will try to act. The big question is whether Republican leaders can find enough Democrats to make up for members of their own party who aren't onboard like Louie Gohmert.

CORNISH: That's NPR congressional correspondent David Welna. David, thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.