(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana) ( )

“Political Football” – GOP grapples with immigration reform

Republicans will mull proposals to overhaul the nation’s immigration system Thursday, casting a new spotlight on possible reforms that have been stalled in Congress since last year.

House Speaker John Boehner told reporters Thursday morning that the issue of immigration has “been turned into a political football.”

 “I think it’s time to deal with it, but how we deal with it is going to be critically important,” he said.

Thursday is a key day for the reform debate, as GOP House members huddle at a retreat in Maryland to discuss their strategies on immigration and the debt ceiling.

Leaders are expected to discuss broad “principles” for immigration reform with Republican members later Thursday afternoon.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said on MSNBC Wednesday that those principles will include allowing undocumented immigrants to receive “probationary status” and the ability to work while border security criteria are being implemented.

“If those things are met — you satisfy the terms of your probation, you’re not on welfare, you pay a fine, you learn English and civics, and the border’s been secured and Interior enforcement independently verified — then you can get a regular work permit,” he said. “And if you want to get in line to get a green card, like any other immigrant, you can do that, you just have to get at the back of the line so that we preference that legal immigrant who did things right in the first place.”

 Boehner repeated Thursday that border security is the “first step in meaningful reform.”

“Listen, you can’t begin to process of immigration reform without securing our borders and the ability to enforce our laws,” he said.

But forging such legislation will be a high-wire act for pro-reform House Republicans, who are mindful that their support from Latinos will likely continue to shrink if they are perceived as jamming an overhaul of outdated laws.

A sizable block of conservatives are resisting those proposed changes, saying that such “amnesty” would be unfair to American workers and legal immigrants.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a leading opponent of the Senate-passed immigration bill that stalled in the House last year, distributed a memo to House Republicans this week outlining why the proposal would be a “hammer blow to the American middle class.”

Opponents like Sessions say that an influx of new legal workers would flood the labor market and drive up American unemployment. And some of the most strident critics of the Obama administration argue that – even if any new law included tough requirements for border security before legalization could go into effect – the federal government can’t be trusted to enforce the law.

 Ryan alluded to that concern Wednesday, saying that Republicans “want to make sure that we write a law that [Obama] can’t avoid, meaning with respect to securing the border and interior enforcement.”

Even if the GOP leadership proposal garners support from a majority of Republicans in the GOP-dominated House, however, it faces an additional test: whether it goes far enough for Democrats.

Many longtime Democratic advocates of immigration reform say that any proposal that bars undocumented workers from eventually obtaining citizenship – either directly or by requiring unrealistic border security criteria to be met before the citizenship process can begin — would be unacceptable.

President Barack Obama offered few specifics in his State of the Union address, giving Republicans a wide berth as they begin their discussions.

“If we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement – and fix our broken immigration system,” Obama said. “Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted. I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same.”

 House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also struck an optimistic note this week, telling reporters she believes that Republicans are acting ‘in “good faith” while working on the principles for reform.

“I’m assured by the speaker that they will be good and acceptable to probably all of us and I hope that is the case,” she said.

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