House Republican leaders plan to outline broad immigration principles, including legalization for the 11 million immigrants living here illegally, to the GOP rank and file as they look to revive long-stalled efforts to overhaul the nation's immigration system.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House GOP leaders will measure the willingness of party members to tackle immigration in a midterm election year when they unveil the principles Thursday at the GOP caucus' annual retreat in Cambridge, Md.
"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.
Boehner faces strong opposition from several conservatives who fear that legislation will lead to citizenship for people who broke U.S. immigration laws, are suspicious of President Barack Obama and his enforcement of any law and are reluctant to give the president a long-sought legislative victory.
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 offered a point-by-point rebuttal to the expected principles.
Sessions warned of the negative impact of proposed changes in 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 amounts to amnesty and serves as a path to citizenship.
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."
Separately, several lawmakers were 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 those in the country 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 a 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.
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 Tuesday. 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.
Diaz-Balart expressed cautious optimism, putting the odds of House action on immigration at 30 percent, up from 5 percent earlier.
"There's a consensus that the system is broken and I'm seeing more and more a desire to fix it," he said in an interview. "Speaker Boehner has been very clear, leadership has been very clear. We're going to do it methodically, that we're going to look at it case by case, step by step, we're not going to rush it."