Parties Wrestle for Control of Immigration Narrative Before Obama's Address

For a week so steeped in budget drama — from dueling deals to stop sequestration to the Postal Service’s move to stamp out Saturday delivery — and national security, from drones to nominees to Benghazi testimony, immigration reform proponents continue a strong, quiet push from both sides of the aisle.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was sent to the border. White House, DHS, and Justice Department officials met today with law enforcement officials, including L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca and former NYPD/LAPD Chief Bill Bratton, “to discuss the need for common sense reform to fix our nation’s broken immigration system.” And Organizing for Action rolled out a lobbying email featuring the story of an illegal immigrant and encouraging others to share their stories at — minimum 20 words required.

“Millions of undocumented immigrants like me live in fear of being deported permanently to a country we may have never even visited. Our entire lives could be erased,” read the email signed by Jose Magana, who says he got deferred action under the directive Obama ordered last year to circumvent Congress’ failure to pass a DREAM Act.

It’s paving the path to President Obama’s State of the Union speech next Tuesday, where he’ll have the stage to claim agreed principles achieved in bipartisan congressional negotiations as his own and spin immigration reform into a legacy issue. Senators involved in the talks took the wind out of Obama’s last immigration speech in Las Vegas when they announced their framework the day before his trip.

And Democrats won’t be the only ones angling to use immigration reform to their advantage as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) would deliver the GOP response to the State of the Union — in English and Spanish.

“Marco’s own experience as the child of immigrants has always informed his belief in limited government and free enterprise, which is why he has helped lead the fight against out-of-control spending and job-destroying tax hikes that continue to hold our economy back and stifle opportunity for millions,” McConnell said.

Even Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) gave a nod to immigration reform in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, perking the ears of media who framed his message as, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, “a kinder, gentler House Republican agenda.”

“While we are a nation that allows anyone to start anew, we are also a nation of laws, and that’s what makes tackling the issue of immigration reform so difficult,” Cantor said. But “one of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.”

Caucus members were also doing their part to try to make immigration a winning issue for the Republican Party.

“I represent a conservative district and I approached this issue with them last week. Would you be open to a path to legal status, whether that be citizenship or something else, and I was shocked — meeting with some of the most conservative folks in my district,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said on CNN. “And they said if you can secure the border, give us employment verification, and guarantee that we don’t have to go through this conversation again, we’ll be open to it.”

After a Republican conference meeting Tuesday, Boehner said he would “applaud my colleagues on both sides of the Capitol and in both parties who’ve worked together to try to solve one of the bigger issues that we’re dealing with in our country, and that’s the issue of immigration, of both legal immigration and illegal immigration.”

“And I’m gonna applaud Senator Rubio for his efforts, the bipartisan efforts here in the House. And what I want to do is encourage both sides of the Capitol and both parties to continue talking to one another so that we can resolve this issue in a bipartisan manner,” Boehner added.

Napolitano traveled Tuesday to Clint and El Paso, Texas, “to inspect border security operations at the Southwest border, meet with state and local stakeholders, and discuss the Department’s ongoing efforts to secure the border while facilitating lawful travel and trade,” DHS said in a readout of the trip, lauding the “historic levels” of border security resources under the Obama administration.

“At DHS, we are committed to making sure that the entire Southwest border is secure while expediting legal travel and trade,” said Napolitano. “We have matched this progress at the border with smart, effective immigration enforcement, with a focus on identifying and removing criminal aliens and other public safety threats, recent border crossers, repeat violators, and employers who break the law.”

On Monday, Napolitano was getting an “operational briefing” of the border in San Diego, including an aerial tour of the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry.

“Given that Washington Democrats like Senator Reid have a hard time understanding what ‘operational control’ of the border means, I’m encouraged to see Sec. Napolitano visit the Texas border,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “I hope Sec. Napolitano returns to Washington and relays to the president and Senate Democrats what Texans already know: our border is not secure and the federal government has a long way to go.”

The House Judiciary Committee also convened a hearing on immigration reform yesterday, featuring San Antonio mayor and Democratic Party It Boy Julian Castro at the witness table.

“I hope no one uses the term illegal immigrants here today,” Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) said at the outset of the hearing. “Our citizens are not — our — our — the people in this country are not illegal, they are out of status, they’re new Americans that are immigrants.”

With Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Steve King (R-Iowa), and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) on the committee, he didn’t get his wish.

Gohmert noted that when he and King went to talk about illegal immigration in England, they were advised to use the term “irregular migration.”

“But anyway, whether it’s irregular migration or illegal immigration, they said they have a law that provides if you come into England, you have to swear that you will not accept any government benefits for a period of five years,” Gohmert said. “As they said, since it’s all about the best interests of our country, we need to make sure people coming in contribute before they take out.”

“How do we not end up in the same situation 10, 20 years down the road if we do this again? My fear is that what we’re saying by a pathway to citizenship is that, ‘All right, you come over here illegally.’ Let’s say we seal the borders 100 percent, nobody can cross the border illegally. You’re still going to have people overstaying their tourist visas. You’ll still have people overstaying their student visas,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas).

“And the natural belief is, ‘All right, they’ve done it twice. I’ll just wait them out and they do it again.’ And we create this underclass of people who can’t have a real job, that are selling bootleg DVDs in the flea markets, or, you know, working whatever underground economy. How do we craft this so we don’t fall into the same trap?”