It is not everyday that an op-ed against giving citizenship to illegal immigrants appears in the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page favors comprehensive immigration reform. But the Journal published a strong dissent, titled "It's the House Bill or Nothing on Immigration," by the up-and-coming Republican congressman Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
The Iraq and Afghanistan veteran also gave a presentation to the House Republican Conference, and has reportedly been working behind the scenes to educate his conservative colleagues on the issue for some time.
The Washington Examiner interviewed Cotton in his office. A partial transcript is below:
Washington Examiner: How did your conference presentation go?
Tom Cotton: I thought it went well. I think there is consensus in our conference that it is not just the Senate bill that is the problem, but the Senate approach that is the problem. Legalization first, enforcement later, maybe, probably never.
I felt that the room was largely supportive.
Examiner: What do you think will happen next?
Cotton: I don't know. We've passed five bills in committee, four Judiciary Committee bills and one Department of Homeland Security bill, which on its own terms I think has a lot of merit. But again, if we pass those bills then they could be used as a Trojan horse to go to conference where we are going to have the approach of the Senate. I'm not sure I could even support those bills, either on the merits or procedurally.
Examiner: What should House Republicans do next?
Cotton: I would say we are not going to go to conference with these bills unless the Senate agrees to drop its legalization first approach.
We will take these meritorious bills we've passed through committee and we will send them to the Senate, just like we sent the Keystone pipeline bill to the Senate. And if they want to abandon that fatally, irrevocably flawed legalization-first structure, and take up bills that will actually give the American people confidence that we are going to secure our border, and enforce our immigration laws, they can take these bills up. And we'll consider any amendments they have.
Otherwise, Chuck Schumer and the Democrats have killed immigration reform.
Examiner: What if they did put security first, would you be open to legalization?
Cotton: There has to be security in place and actually effective. We have to see a fence in place actually stopping illegal immigration.
Examiner: What if they wrote a bill that put actual security measures in place first?' Could you support that?
Cotton: Not in that bill. There has to be enforcement in place, working, so the American people can see it working, and its like physical objective enforcement. Not programs, or milestones, or strategy or anything else. Enforcement in place. And then once it is in place, and it has been demonstrated to be effective, then at that point.
Examiner: Sounds like that would have to be a separate bill?
Cotton: Yes. Separate vote in a separate conference.
Examiner: How is this playing in Arkansas?
Cotton: We've had 1,800 contacts to the office via email, phone, letters, and only 12 of them have supported the Senate approach. Arkansans, like I think most Americans who don't live inside the elite Washington, D.C. bubble, don't trust their government to enforce immigration laws. And they don't think that we should reward lawbreakers while our border is still open and we're not enforcing our immigration laws. Because they know we will have exactly what happened in 1986. Chuck Schumer will defund the law in the next Congress, the ACLU will tie it up in court like they did with the '86 bill, the administration will use its hundreds of waivers and exception authorities, or Barack Obama will just not enforce it, just like he didn't even enforce his own namesake legislation.
Examiner: Have you down any town halls and does this issue come up at all?
Cotton: Not specifically on the issue. On July 3, I was in Hot Springs, we probably had about 100 people, and I think 25 people brought it up, all opposed. I had two takeaways from that fact: 1) Not many people brought it up, because not that many people view it as a priority. They worry about economic growth and job creation, because we still have tens of million of Americans unemployed. 2) For those who do view it as a priority, they are staunchly opposed to the Senate approach.
Examiner: Given how Arkansans feel about it, do you think Sen. Mark Pryor's, D-Ark., vote will hurt him in 2014?
Cotton: I won't make an assessment of the political fallout for 2014, I will just say that all the contacts we've received, virtually all, over 99 percent, are against the Senate approach. The Republican Senator from Arkansas, John Boozman, voted against it. He voted against it's consideration at the outset and I think he is right where most Arkansans are.