House GOP leaders issued a set of standards last week for overhauling U.S. immigration law, but the ink had hardly dried on their one-page summary before conservatives starting pushing back — not against the leadership's ideas but against the idea of doing anything at all on such a controversial issue. Nevertheless, the House should press ahead. Resolving the many problems in the current system will only get harder if it misses the opportunity it has now.
The leadership's standards represent an important shift in two areas. First, having ignored the comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform bill the Senate passed with great fanfare last year, top House Republicans now want to move forward on a wide-ranging set of changes, not just tougher border security. And second, instead of calling on the roughly 11 million immigrants already in the country illegally to "self-deport," they are advocating a path to legalization similar to the Senate's, although without a clear route to citizenship in the future.
The broad outlines are promising. As in the Senate bill, the House standards call for more effective enforcement at the borders and in the workplace, a better system for temporary workers, a path to citizenship for those brought into the country as children, and more visas for highly skilled immigrants. But that's not exactly breaking new ground; thoughtful members from both parties have long agreed on such goals.
The differences are in how the goals would be achieved. The standards suggest that, as a sop to nativist elements in the party, House leaders may seek punitive restrictions on newly legalized residents' ability to seek citizenship. They may also seek to delay other reforms until the borders are secured to some unattainable degree. Both would be serious mistakes, but the only way to tell exactly where the leadership is going is for the House to translate the standards into actual bills and start debating them.
Sadly, the news about the new standards prompted some members of Congress and conservative pundits to cite a laundry list of reasons to abandon the effort. President Obama can't be trusted to enforce the law, some said. Taking up immigration will only divide Republicans and distract voters from the president's failed policies, argued others.
The same could be said about almost any major issue, however, and voters didn't send their representatives to Washington to lie low until the next election. If Republicans want to be the party of jobs and a better economy, there are few better ways to burnish their credentials than to fix a broken immigration system that's a drag on growth. The standards offer a starting point for comprehensive reform that would bring productive immigrants out of the shadows of the underground economy. The Senate has done its part; it's time for the House to get moving.