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House Republicans' New Immigration Proposals: 'Trap' or Opportunity?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're a month into a new year, but we want to start the program today talking through some of the old issues that are bubbling back up in Washington. The political parties are doing that, too. In fact, House Republicans just finished a three-day retreat in Maryland to plan their strategy for the year. And one of the issues they focused on was immigration.

They put together a document of their Standards for Immigration Reform, but it became clear even with the release of that document that the party is still very much divided over the way forward on that and some other issues. We wanted to talk more about the different points of view here, so we called on two of our regular contributors. Fernando Espuelas is managing editor and host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show," which airs on Univision America. He's here once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome back. Happy New Year.

FERNANDO ESPUELAS: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Mario Loyola is chief counsel for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a conservative think tank. He's a columnist for the National Review magazine, which is, of course, a conservative outlet. He's also a regular in our Barbershop roundtable with us from KUT in Austin. Mario Loyola, welcome back to you. Thank you for joining us.

MARIO LOYOLA: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So let's start with these immigration principles that party leaders rolled out during their retreat. No surprise, first on the list is that border security and interior enforcement must come first. I'm quoting from the document. There's also a call for a national employment verification system. And those - that's not surprising because these have been sort of core issues the Republican candidates have been running on for some time now.

But one of the things that surprised some people is there's no path to citizenship for people who came here without proper authorization to begin with, except for, you know, children who were brought by their parents. Fernando, you wrote a very tough column for TheHill saying that this very idea is repulsive. I'm just going to quote from it. You said the very un-American idea that the U.S. will have a permanent underclass of laborers paying taxes and contributing to the common good, yet unable to aspire to citizenship is repulsive. And you also say that one of the effects is going to be diminished economic benefits, but also just racism and more social instability. Why do you feel that?


MARTIN: And you obviously feel that very strongly.

ESPUELAS: Yeah. Well, first of all, that model of a two-tiered people living in one country, one citizen - one group of citizens, the other group of just workers has failed in every single country it's been tried. And the results have been exactly that - diminished economic opportunity, racism and other negative factors. And we already suffer with enough racism in our society in general, whether it's open or hidden. And I think this would create a situation where this is a new normal in the U.S. And, you know, we're already done with segregation. We're not...

MARTIN: But let me ask you this, Fernando, there are those who argue that this path to citizenship is a priority for the political class who see an opportunity to benefit from it. It's actually not a priority for many of the people who are directly affected, who really - what they really want is to stay with their families and to not have to leave and to keep their families together. And that's their priority. What do you say to that?

ESPUELAS: Well, that might be the case, but really this is an American issue. It's about our society, the kind of country we want to have. And although, obviously, what immigrants think is an important component, we have to think about the country first. And I think it would be strongly damaging to the concept of our democracy and our Republic to have this bizarre noncitizen class.

MARTIN: Mario, what do you say about that? I take it you actually agree with the House Republicans' principles that put border security - well, no. Actually, you don't. You have a sort of a different perspective on this. Why don't you just tell us what your perspective is on the principles that they set out and then your opinion overall on what we just talked about?

LOYOLA: Well, yeah. I mean, I think that, you know, Boehner says, and as the principles suggest, that you have to have border security first. And I think that may be true politically, but I think it's impossible practically when you think about it. I mean, the central - the essential problem that we're looking at here is that you have an overwhelming economic incentive to illegal immigration, which is that people think that they can come here and find work illegally.

And so, you know, that's why the real key to immigration reform is the employment verification piece, right, 'cause when you get that right and it becomes very difficult to find work here illegally and everyone knows that it's almost impossible to find work here illegally, then people will stop coming illegally. A lot of those who are already here will self-deport. And now as soon as you have the employment verification piece, you get to the second essential point, which is the visa reform because as soon as you have employment verification, American businesses are going to have trouble finding all the workers that they need.

And it's the workforce needs of the American economy that should be the real driver of the visa reform and of the - all of the discussion of legal status for the 12 million illegal immigrants who are here. Then when you have those two problems solved, then you can move on to the - then you have some chance of establishing border security. I think that's the right order, is employment verification, visa reform and then border security. To do it the other way around doesn't make any sense.

MARTIN: Yes. And I do want to apologize for misstating your position 'cause you were saying that you think, you know, border security - you're saying that the GOP demand that border security comes first. You're saying that's actually impossible on a practical level. But what about that path to citizenship argument, you know, Mario? You know, Fernando is not the only person who's argued that this really creates a permanent underclass, which will become racially specific even though it isn't. I mean, it is important to point out that the only people affected by immigration reform are not exclusively of Hispanic heritage, but that is the largest group. And what about his argument?

LOYOLA: Yeah, look, the permanent underclass is not being created by government policy. It's being created by 12 million people who are here illegally and who chose to be here illegally. I mean, one principle - you talk about the principles that this society depends on. This society depends on the rule of law and the enforcement of the laws. And you cannot reward people who break the law and consequently punish those who follow the law. That's just not right. And so you have to have - at the center of all of this immigration discussion, we have to agree on a set of simple rules that people can abide by.


LOYOLA: I mean, the 14th amendment is not an international charity, right. This is not - this is not - what we have to be at the end of the day is a society based on the rule of law. And that's why I think the path to citizenship can't be easier for people who have broken the law than it is for all of the people who wait in line around the world and wait for their lotteries and all that. I mean, that system is broken. I agree with people there. It ought to be easier in many cases to get into the United States, especially if there's an economic justification for your being here. But I think at the end of the day, you have to respect the rule of law, and that's why granting an amnesty is a bad idea.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about immigration and the way forward there. We're starting with the recent House Republican retreat and the principles that they set out there. We're talking with columnist Mario Loyola - that's who was speaking just now - and Fernando Espuelas of Univision America. He's the host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show." Fernando, you were - you took issue with something that Mario said there.

ESPUELAS: Yeah. I think that's a completely simplistic and incorrect view of why there is illegal immigration in the United States. There's illegal immigration in the United States because the United States wants it that way. It is not an accident that being in the United States without documentation is not a crime. It's an infraction. It's like double parking. And why has that been? Because business in this country has wanted cheap labor, and they've imported that cheap labor through these mechanisms. Now does anybody want illegal immigration? Of course not. But the issue is not the immigrants. The issue is the desire of industry in the U.S. and politicians who get some support from that industry.

MARTIN: Well, let me just ask each of you...

LOYOLA: Yeah, I agree with that.

MARTIN: ...In the time that we have left, is where's the center of gravity on this now? I mean, it's the - how do you read this Republican document? Do you read it as kind of a new willingness to at least advance the issue because some are saying, well, we're setting forth our principles, but this cannot possibly happen before the elections, which are, as we know, toward the end of the year, so?

ESPUELAS: Well, my thinking on this - first of all, I thought what Mario said was very - I appreciate the honesty. You know, the ultimate goal is here to have people self-deport as if they were, you know, cockroaches or something that you're trying to...

LOYOLA: Oh, for God sakes.

ESPUELAS: Well, I mean, that's basically what you said. And ultimately, this is why a comprehensive reform bill is needed because you need to deal with all of these elements, not just start with one and then hopefully make it to the end.

MARTIN: If he said return migration or reverse migration, would that make it - would that be different?

ESPUELAS: Well, you know what? It doesn't make any sense economically. This has already been scored by the CBO, has - many, many impartial studies have been done that show tremendous economic benefit, plus the reality of demography - I think this is just completely comical - which is the population is falling. If we do not have immigration - and I'm not suggesting that the 1 million that are legally coming to this country is going to fix it because no one thinks that. You need to deal with this whole thing as a national issue and not just simply think that these immigrants are somehow, you know, evil beings that need to be exposed.

MARTIN: Mario?

LOYOLA: Yeah. I mean, I don't think that they're evil beings, but their status here is a violation of criminal laws.

ESPUELAS: No, it's not. It's an infraction.


LOYOLA: You know, or we can quibble over semantics.

ESPUELAS: No, no. It's not quibbling.

LOYOLA: I mean, the point is we want, at the end of the day, to have people have access to the American dream. We want them to have a legal status in this country. We want the American economy to be able to find the workers that it needs. And so those are the principles that should be driving the immigration debate.

MARTIN: Mario, how do you read this document from the House Republicans? Does it signal a shift in the center of gravity about this argument? And there has been a shift in the center of gravity around another argument. I just want to briefly mention, you know, the debt ceiling - it was another of the focuses of the retreat. You know, House Republican leaders said that they are not going to threaten another default showdown, which is a lot different from what had been kind of the strategy last year. So do you read this document as a change in the center of gravity of the discussion on that side of the aisle or not? Or how do you read it?

LOYOLA: Well, I think that the document is very aspirational. These are the principles that people agree on in the leadership. But what they come out with, whether it's a single bill or in a package of bills or one bill first, we'll have to see what votes they can get together on it. But I think, you know, I mean, the president has really made the chances of this passing this year very difficult, as Congressman Paul Ryan said, because he's - you know, his casual disregard for the constitutional obligation to see that the laws are faithfully executed. I mean, he's enforcing whatever immigration law he wants. I mean, on the Obamacare case he's stopped collecting statutory taxes that he doesn't like.


LOYOLA: I mean, you know, so you have a real problem here, which is that Republicans don't trust the president to enforce the laws that they're going to pass. And so they have to be very careful because the president is going to grant a de facto amnesty to everyone if he has the chance. That's how they feel. And so that makes the risks very difficult.

MARTIN: Fernando, you talk about it on your show all the time, so tell us very briefly what's your take on - is there a vote or not? Or - what happens now?

ESPUELAS: No. I don't think these are principles that are actionable. I think that they have - I believe they're kind of a trap. And ultimately the far right of the Republican Party, which is increasingly much stronger, is totally against it. So I don't think Boehner has the support.

MARTIN: Fernando Espuelas is a managing editor and host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show," which airs on Univision America. Mario Loyola is chief counsel for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a columnist for the National Review. Thank you both so much for joining us.

ESPUELAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.