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House Republicans wary of Senate immigration bill

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By Brett Neely

MPR News 91.3 FM

WASHINGTON — The fate of the immigration overhaul in Congress rests with Republicans in the U.S. House, where Speaker John Boehner said Thursday the vast majority of GOP lawmakers want to tackle the immigration issue piece by piece, largely focusing on border security.

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That approach differs from the bill passed in June by Democrats in the Senate, a measure that offers a 13-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants already in the United States without permission.

Boehner stopped short of saying the House would support citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, a sign that Republicans may be divided on the issue. Minnesota’s three Republican House members also are divided.

One thing House Republicans are united on is their unwillingness to let the Senate, dictate how the House should legislate.

"The House is not going to take the Senate bill," said U.S. Rep. John Kline of Minnesota’s 2nd District.

Kline and his two Republican colleagues in the Minnesota delegation, U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann and Erik Paulsen agree that the priority should be stricter enforcement at the borders.

On the House floor late Monday, Bachmann pointed to a 2006 law that included a 700-mile-long fence along the nearly 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico.

"There used to be a commercial on TV that was, ‘Where’s the beef?’" said Bachmann, who represents Minnesota’s 6th District. "Where’s the fence?"

Since Congress approved that law, federal authorities have built several hundred miles of fence and added Border Patrol agents in the Southwest. The Senate bill sent to the House would add 700 miles of additional fencing, 20,000 new guards and technologies like drones and motion sensors.

WARY OF ‘AMNESTY’

Still, Bachmann and other conservatives are rallying the conservative base to oppose any immigration bill without first tackling the border issue. They’re wary of passing any bill because that could result in a deal with the Senate.

"We are not going to send any bill to a conference bill where we know it’s going to get ripped up and turned into something that doesn’t even resemble border security," she said. "There will be full-born amnesty buried somewhere in that bill, we know it."

"Amnesty" is the word opponents of an immigration overhaul use to describe any attempt to grant citizenship to people who entered the country without permission.

The Senate bill contains what’s called a "path to citizenship" — an arduous 13-year process that would allow unauthorized immigrants already in the United States to eventually earn U.S. citizenship.

It’s clear House Republicans are far less eager to support that idea.

"I think that you have to have a system that takes those people that are in an illegal status and allows them to be in a legal status," Kline said.

For Republicans, whether allowing unauthorized immigrants to obtain "legal status" means granting them a path to eventual citizenship allowing them to apply for a green card *that allows them to work in the United States has yet to be determined, Kline said.

"There’s an ongoing debate about that," he said. "I’m not sure which way it’s going to go."

In an interview, Paulsen, who represents Minnesota’s 3rd District, also used the phrase "legal status" when asked whether unauthorized immigrants could earn citizenship.

However, he said, "I’m kind of weighing all options, not putting anything off the table."

STAKES ARE HIGH

Outside spending groups such as the "center-right" American Action Network are running TV ads designed to sell the Senate immigration bill to staunch conservatives.

"It’s called the border surge," an announcer for the network said of the bill in one ad. "The toughest border security plan ever passed by Congress. 700 miles of new fencing. 20,000 new border patrol agents. Radar. Night vision. Even drones."

Former Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, chairman of the American Action Network, said passing immigration reform is a do or die proposition for the GOP and that attempts to sink the process are "short-sighted."

"There’s no question," Coleman said. "Look at the demographics, look at the numbers. If the Republican Party is to be a national party, it can’t be winning less than 30 percent — and the number is shrinking — of the Hispanic vote."

But many Republicans in the House don’t share that view. They contend that many of the people who would become citizens under the law would back Democrats.

A few weeks ago, Bachmann even warned that Republicans would never again win the White House if the Senate bill becomes law.

Still, there are other incentives for House Republicans to deal with immigration, said University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson. Chief among them, she said, is that the institution needs to prove it is still relevant to addressing national problems.

"I think that it does fit into this narrative that is increasingly true that this Congress just hasn’t gotten much done," Pearson said.

House Democrats are mostly on the sidelines of this intra-Republican debate though they almost uniformly back the Senate bill.

But given the fractured nature of the House Republican caucus these days, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat who represents Minnesota’s 8th District, isn’t optimistic the immigration issue can be resolved.

"They just can’t get their act together," Nolan said of House Republicans. "But they’re the ones that are in charge and they’re not in charge. It’s chaos."

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